Living better at home with heart disease

Learning that you’ve got heart disease can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. The good news is that many types of heart disease can be treated by making healthier choices and changes to your lifestyle. Increasing physical activity (even an hour a week), paying attention to nutrition, and maintaining a healthy weight can improve and even reverse the effects of heart disease. People with heart disease and those who love them have a lot of power when it comes to working together to enrich their quality of life.

What is heart disease?

The term "heart disease" encompasses an array of conditions affecting the heart. These include coronary artery disease (restricted blood vessels), heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), and congenital heart defects (those you were born with). "Heart disease" and "cardiovascular disease" often are used interchangeably, though cardiovascular disease usually refers to conditions involving narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, congestive heart failure (CHF), chest pain, or stroke.

Common conditions

  • Heart attack. When blood vessels are restricted and a blood clot blocks part of the heart, this can cause a heart attack. If blood flow is completely cut off by the clot, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die. Though most people survive their first heart attack, it’s a warning alarm that you need to make some changes. Talk to your doctor to learn more about medication and lifestyle changes that can help.
  • Stroke. The most common type is ischemic stroke, which happens when a blood vessel feeding the brain is blocked, usually from a blood clot. This can cause brain cells to die, sometimes affecting the person’s ability to walk or talk. A hemorrhagic stroke is the result of a burst blood vessel and is cause most often by hypertension. While some brain cells die after a stroke and are never replaced, some cells don’t die—they’re only injured and can repair themselves over time.

Other types of cardiovascular diseases

  • Heart failure. During congestive heart failure, the heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should. Though it keeps on ticking, it’s not meeting the body’s need for oxygen. Without treatment, heart failure can get worse.
  • Arrhythmia. Characterized by abnormal heart rhythm, it can mean the heart is beating too slowly, too rapidly, or irregularly. The heart’s ability to function is affected by this.
  • Heart valve problems. Stenosis is when heart valves that don’t open enough to allow proper blood flow. Regurgitation is when the heart valves don’t properly close, allowing blood to leak through. Mitral valve prolapse occurs when the valve leaflets bulge or prolapse back into the upper chamber, often causing them not to close properly and allowing blood to flow backward through them.

Common Symptoms

Heart disease symptoms vary, depending on the type of heart disease you have. Common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back
  • Pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in your legs or arms if the blood vessels in those parts of your body are narrowed

Be sure to watch for cardiovascular symptoms and to discuss concerns with your health-care provider. Though diagnosis may not be made until a person has a heart attack, angina, stroke, or heart failure, cardiovascular disease can sometimes be found early with regular exams.

Can you recognize the warning signs?

Be sure you know the warning signs of a heart attack. Call 911 for the fastest assistance and transportation to the ER.

If you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease or risk of congestive heart failure...

  • If you smoke, quit now. If you’re coping with heart disease and you’re a smoker, take steps to stop smoking and slow the progress of the disease. Your healthcare provider can help you decide the best method for you.
  • Get physical. Just a half hour of moderate exercise five times a week—like a brisk walk or a few laps in the pool—lowers your chances of getting a heart attack by up to 50 percent. On the days you’re not getting your heart pumping, strength training is a good complement, like lifting weights (or a couple of soup cans!) to strengthen muscles.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. It’s common for people who have had a heart attack or stroke to feel depressed, angry, or anxious after the event. They may worry every time they feel a twinge that it’s happening again. Family members, too, sometimes feel resentful or guilty, worrying they contributed to it (teenagers especially). Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider if you or your loved one might benefit from help with these emotions.
  • Treat conditions that can lead to heart disease. If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or are obese, seek treatment. These conditions contribute to heart attack and stroke risk. Proper nutrition and medication can help curb an uptick in these areas and get you moving in the right direction.
  • Communicate directly. Be clear with family members and care providers about your priorities, needs, and wants.
  • Reach out to others. Spending time with other people who have heart disease, or who are caring for someone who’s had a stroke or heart attack, can be vital in helping you navigate the changing terrain. Many medical centers and community organizations have heart and stroke support groups to guide families through the transitions they’re going through.
  • Stay positive. Focus on what you can do rather than what you cannot do. Explore new activities (bird watching, dancing, yoga, walking clubs, Tai Chi) that contribute to keeping a strong heart.

People recovering at home from heart attack or stroke, or who have advancing heart disease may require personalized skilled care to ensure their condition is managed effectively. Adding a care professional to the family caregiving team can be essential.

After a heart attack, for example, it’s important to rest and ease back into socializing, enjoyable activities, and doctor-recommended exercise. A home care professional can provide respite care for family members and assist the care recipient with daily activities like getting dressed, food preparation, and staying active. The main benefit of home care is that it enables the person with heart disease to continue to live at home with as much independence as possible while also receiving the support and care needed to be safe.

Family members also benefit—getting the time to take care of their own well-being, to connect with friends, to relieve stress in healthy ways, while knowing their loved one is being cared for by a compassionate, trained professional is a great help.

If you’re caring for someone with heart disease…

  • Change up your cooking. If you’re the one doing most of the grocery shopping and meal prep, make sure you’re loading more fresh ingredients into your basket and onto the plate. Use fewer packaged products: Try adding fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, and cilantro to dishes for flavor instead of relying on salt. Opt for lean meats, like fish and chicken. Steer clear of foods that are processed, fried, and high-glucose. And say goodbye to smothering everything in cheese and heavy sauces. You both will feel better eating lighter and healthier.
  • Cut yourself some slack. Caregiving is stressful. After someone has a heart attack or stroke, it’s common for their family caregivers to feel lonely and helpless about the situation. Maybe you’re feeling angry, scared, or resentful. All normal. Accept that you can’t be the superhero full time and that, really, no one’s expecting you to be. Put your yellow mask on first, as they say in the airline biz. That means take care of yourself first so you can better take care of others. Just knowing you have reliable respite care at the click of a button (or app) can bring relief. So go ahead and show up to poker night, rejoin your walking group or book club, or attend that beekeeping workshop you were looking forward to.
  • Exercise. A person with heart disease should consult with their doctor about which activities are best depending on their physical condition, age, balance, and the type of heart disease they have. Encourage your loved one with heart disease to start slowly and work up to a routine. Walk together for thirty minutes one day and lift some weights at the gym the next. Don’t do too much—it’s better to do more repetitions with lighter weights instead of injuring yourself by trying to bench press 200 pounds. Exercising together is a great way to support your person, have fun together, and increase your own endorphins. Other caregivers on your team also can help with staying active and healthy exercise.
  • Be a self-care advocate. Encourage your loved one to do as much as they can to manage their condition. Some caregivers feel like they need to take over everything, and that’s a fast track to exhaustion. A person with heart disease should handle their own medications, if possible—understand what each medication is for, refill prescriptions, and take them on the prescribed schedule. It’s fine to go to medical appointments together and ask a lot of questions. But urge your loved one to ask questions and take notes too. With heart disease, it’s important for the one with the disease to feel in control of activities and decisions as much as possible. And to keep an updated list of medications prescribed by all doctors (primary care, nephrologist, rheumatologist, etc.) and to bring that list to all office visits to review.
  • Quit smoking. If you’re a smoker taking care of a person with heart disease, quitting is vital. If you’re both smokers, consult your doctor and come up with a plan together. Your healthcare provider can help you determine the best method for you to kick the habit.

Heart disease facts

  • If you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle, one of the fastest ways to reduce heart disease risk is to start moving. Try for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise, five times a week.
  • Most people survive their first heart attack and return to their normal lives.
  • About 85.6 million Americans are living with some form of cardiovascular disease or the after-effects of a stroke.
  • Not all heart attacks are dramatic like in the movies. Women, especially, are more likely to experience symptoms like back or jaw pain, nausea and vomiting in addition to chest or upper body discomfort.

Helpful resources

  • For more information on living with and preventing heart disease, check out the American Heart Association Healthy Living topics.
  • Need inspiration for healthy eating? See how experts rate these healthy diets.
  • Explore informative and inspiring heart disease blogs to learn from other people’s experiences. You’re not alone.
  • Stay current on the latest news about heart disease research and science.

This information is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for the advice of a medical professional. Source: American Heart Association

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