Aging in Place with Heart Disease
Heart disease is a lifelong condition. Even if you’ve had surgery or other procedures to help with your blood flow, your arteries will remain damaged. Things may also get worse unless you make changes at home. However, a heart condition is not a death sentence—there are many concrete things you can do on your own to reclaim your life. Working with your doctor and adopting a heart healthy lifestyle can help you control heart disease, prevent a heart attack or stroke, and enjoy a long and fulfilling life.
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Depending on your health issues, your cardiologist may prescribe something to treat high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, or heart disease itself. He or she may prescribe something for angina, the chest pain that often accompanies heart disease. Eating healthily can enable you to take the lowest doses as possible for of some of your medications.
Advanced heart disease sometimes necessitates surgery to open an artery, improve blood flow, clear blockages, or alleviate significant chest pain. A coronary angioplasty (or “balloon” angioplasty) or coronary artery bypass graft (or bypass surgery) may make sense for you.
Good heart health means visiting your cardiologist and general practitioner regularly. Along with routine blood pressure and cholesterol checks, there are additional tests that can spot blood flow issues or heart muscle damage. Remember: though a doctor can prescribe medication and advise you on surgery options, how you live with your diagnosis is up to you.
Living With Heart Disease
When it comes to health, everyone must work with the cards he or she is dealt. You cannot control your age, your family history, or whether or not you have already had a heart attack, stroke, or comorbidity like diabetes. But most risk factors for heart disease are in your hands: smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Make Healthy Food Choices
Eating foods low in sodium, saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol that are also high in fiber can help prevent high cholesterol. In practical terms, this means plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. Watching your sugar can lower your blood sugar and prevent or help control diabetes. Whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, and lean cuts of poultry and meat are also part of a “heart healthy” repertoire.
Understand the basics of “bad” and “good” cholesterol. HDL and LDL are the two main types of cholesterol (lipids, or blood fats) that make up your total cholesterol. HDL (high-density lipoproteins) is beneficial cholesterol. It can protect your body from narrowing blood vessels. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), however, worsens narrowing arteries. Another type of harmful cholesterol in the liver, VLDL (very low density lipoproteins) contains a high volume of triglycerides. While lots of medical jargon can go over your head, knowing these names will help you make healthy food choices and communicate more easily with health professionals.
Keep on Moving
Consistent physical activity makes a huge difference in heart function, weight control, blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol levels. It can also prevent depression and minimize stress. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise daily is associated with lower death rates from heart disease. For most adults, the Surgeon General recommends two hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, like brisk walking or bicycling, every week. But first talk with your doctor about what types and duration of exercise are best for you. If you have been diagnosed with heart disease—or have even had surgery—moving vigorously may feel counterintuitive. But physical activity is an excellent way to prevent future heart problems.
Stop smoking and avoid second-hand smoke. Smoking wreaks havoc on heart and blood vessels and is linked to blood clots and high blood pressure.
Learn to recognize signs of stress in your life and practice lowering stress levels with meditation, yoga, or rhythmic breathing.
Monitor Your Weight
Calculate your body mass index (BMI) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Limit Your Drinking
Alcohol raises blood pressure. Women should have no more than one alcoholic beverage per day, and men should limit themselves to two drinks.
If appropriate, make use of cardiac rehabilitation. If you have survived a heart attack or undergone heart surgery, take advantage of any cardiac rehab available to you. These programs include safe and effective exercise training, education on heart healthy living, and counseling to reduce stress and help you return to an active life. If your doctor does not discuss cardiac rehab with you, be proactive. Ask them and find out about programs nearby that might fit your needs.
Make a Plan
Prepare a heart attack survival plan at home. If you have heart disease, accept that you are at high risk for having a heart attack. Planning ahead will help you get treatment fast. Be sure that your family and caregivers know the warning signs and what to do if you should have a heart attack. Have a prepared list of medications you currently take, any medicines you are allergic to, and contact numbers for your doctor and family members in an emergency. Keep a copy at home, at work, and in your purse or bag.
The main warning signs of a heart attack for both men and women are:
- Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes. It may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. The discomfort may be mild or severe, and it may come and go.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
- Shortness of breath. This may occur with or without chest discomfort.
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
Angina is a pain or discomfort in the chest that occurs when the heart muscle is not getting enough blood. The pain may feel like pressure or squeezing in your chest, or may also occur in your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back due to the buildup of plaque in the arteries. While angina is not a heart attack per se, you are more likely to have one. Stable angina has a predictable pattern. It can result from emotional or physical stress and can be alleviated with medication or rest. Unstable angina, on the other hand, is irregular and a sign that a heart attack may be coming. If your pain does not go away within five minutes, call 911 immediately.
Time is of the essence with a heart attack or stroke. Even if you are unsure if you are having an emergency, calling 911 quickly can save your life. Clot-dissolving medications are the most effective within the first hour after a heart attack. When you get to the hospital, ask for tests that can show whether you are having a heart attack.
Warning Signs of a Stroke Include:
One side of the face may feel numb. A smile may look uneven or lopsided.
Weakness or Numbness in One Arm
When raising both arms, take note if one arm drifts downward.
Speech Difficulty or Slurring
A person having a stroke may be hard to understand or unable to speak. If you are with someone who may be having a stroke, ask him or her to repeat a simple sentence like “The sky is blue.” Someone having a stroke may not be able to correctly repeat the words.
Trouble Seeing in One or Both Eyes
You may suddenly have blurred or blackened vision in one or both eyes, or you may see double.
If it is severe and sudden, and you are vomiting or dizzy, this may indicate a stroke.
Dizziness or Difficulty Walking
You may stumble or experience sudden dizziness, loss of balance or loss of coordination.
If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and tell the operator that you think it is a stroke. Note the time when the first symptoms appeared. Emergency responders will want to know.
Either at home or in a medical setting, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re overreacting. You have the right to be thoroughly examined for a medical emergency.