How to Prevent a Second Heart Attack

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on February 5, 2020

Recovering from a heart attack often challenges patients with unexpected physical and emotional changes, including depression, that require support from your medical team

Preventing a second heart attack involves some simple but important changes that you can make yourself. 

These are important, because the American Heart Association (AHA) says about one in five people who have had a heart attack will be readmitted to the hospital for a second one within five years. Each year, there are about 335,000 recurrent heart attacks in the United States.

One in five heart attack patients will experience a second one within five years.

To be proactive and not become one of the five, follow these AHA and Carilion Clinic recommendations to reduce your risk: 

Follow Your Doctor's Orders
Following a heart attack, your cardiologist will likely refer you to a cardiac rehabilitation program. These medically supervised programs focus on exercise and wellness conditioning to regain strength and endurance while learning to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Carilion's cardiac rehabilitation program lasts for several months and includes group support from other patients who are also recovering from heart attack or heart surgery. 

It is important to follow through with recommendations from your cardiac rehabilitation team. The program teaches you what to watch for when exercising on your own, and addresses all of the risk factors listed above in ways that empower you and your family to make lifestyle changes that can improve your quality of life and prevent a second heart attack.

Quit Smoking
Smoking is the biggest preventable risk factor for heart disease. Quitting smoking cuts your risk for another heart attack in half! Talk with your primary care provider about options that can help you quit.

closeup of man's hands breaking a cigarette in half implying quitting smoking
Quitting smoking will decrease your risk of a second heart attack by half.

Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Shopping and cooking for your heart is easier than it sounds—and it affects more than you may realize. When you start with fresh produce, lean meats and fish, and avoid margarine and packaged cookies, crackers and other snack foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils, you can lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol and triglyceride levels. LDL is one of the primary substances that causes heart attacks. 

Eating a heart-healthy diet can also improve other measures of second heart attack risk: 

  • Maintaining a healthy weight: the healthiest BMI (body-mass index) range is between 18.5 and 24.9
  • Controlling blood sugars: having diabetes or pre-diabetes increases your risk, and lowering your blood sugars can decrease inflammation and prevent further arterial damage

Exercise Regularly
Your heart is a muscle, and just as exercise strengthens your arms and legs, it strengthens your heart. Exercise also boosts your energy level, improves your mood and helps manage weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. The AHA includes high blood pressure as a risk factor for a second heart attack.

family of four eating a healthy meal and smiling
A heart-healthy diet helps prevent a second heart attack, and keeps the whole family healthy by creating beneficial lifelong habits.

Be sure to get permission from your health care before starting an exercise program. Watch for any of the following symptoms during exercise and call your provider immediately if you experience them: 

  • Shortness of breath that lasts for more than 10 minutes
  • Chest pain or pain in your arms, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Dizzy spells
  • Pale or splotchy skin
  • Very fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness, swelling or pain in your legs

Manage Your Medications
After a heart attack, you will likely be prescribed medications such as aspirin, a beta blocker, statin therapy and perhaps other drugs. Take all prescribed medicines as directed and follow any other instructions your provider gives you. The AHA also recommends:

  • Limiting alcohol, which can raise blood sugar and triglyceride levels as well as increasing blood pressure
  • Avoiding illegal drugs, which can damage the heart muscle and even cause coronary artery spasms that can result in a second heart attack

Assess Your Mental Health
Just as important as physical health is your mental health. Stress, anger and depression not only feel awful, they can damage your heart. They can also contribute to missed appointments and keep you from reaching out for help. If you are experiencing negative emotions, whether related to your heart attack or not, talk with your provider about treatments and therapies that can help.

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This article was reviewed by Carilion Clinic Cardiology.