A heart attack is a life threatening medical condition in which the blood flowing to the heart suddenly stops due to a blocked coronary artery. Damage to surrounding tissues occurs immediately.

Recovering from a heart attack ultimately depends on the severity of the condition as well as how quickly it’s treated.

Immediately after the event, you can expect to stay in the hospital for 3 to 5 days, or until your condition is stable.

Overall, it takes several weeks — and possibly up to several months — to recover from a heart attack. Your individual recovery is dependent on:

  • your overall condition
  • risk factors
  • adherence to your treatment plan

A “widowmaker,” as the name suggests, refers to a severe type of heart attack. It occurs when 100 percent of the left anterior descending (LAD) artery is blocked.

This particular type of heart attack can be fatal because of the LAD artery’s significant role in providing blood to your heart.

The symptoms of a widowmaker are similar to those of a heart attack from another clogged artery. These include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • fatigue

Despite its name, a widowmaker heart attack can affect women, too.

With this type of heart attack, you may be in the hospital for a few extra days, especially if you need to have surgery to open up the LAD artery.

A low-fat, low-calorie diet has been proven to help prevent the risk of a heart attack. However, if you’ve already had a heart attack, eating right is simply a must to help prevent future occurrences.

One helpful eating plan is called the dietary approaches to stop hypertension, or DASH.

The overall goal of this diet is to limit sodium, red meat, and saturated fats while focusing on potassium-rich sources of fruits and vegetables, along with lean meats, fish, and plant oils.

The Mediterranean diet is similar to DASH in that they both emphasize plant-based foods.

Research suggests that a plant-based diet may decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, which contributes to heart failure. Such diets may also decrease heart disease severity.

Overall, aim to:

  • Avoid trans fats and saturated fats whenever possible. These fats directly contribute to plaque formation in the arteries. When your arteries become clogged, blood can no longer flow to the heart, resulting in a heart attack. Instead, eat fats that come from plant sources, such as olive oil or nuts.
  • Eat fewer calories. Eating too many calories and having overweight can also strain your heart. Managing your weight and eating a balance of plant foods, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products can help.
  • Limit sodium. Reducing your daily sodium intake to under 2,300 mg per day can decrease blood pressure and the overall strain on your heart. This is also a key element of the DASH diet.
  • Focus on eating produce. Whole, fresh fruits and vegetables should be staples in your diet. When fresh produce isn’t available, consider substituting with no-sugar-added frozen or salt-free canned versions.

After a heart attack, it’s normal to feel very fatigued. You may feel weak and mentally exhausted.

You may also have a decreased appetite. Eating smaller meals can help place less strain on your heart.

It’s common to have mental health side effects after a heart attack. These can last between 2 and 6 months. Some mental health-related symptoms include:

  • anger
  • irritability
  • fear
  • insomnia and daytime fatigue
  • sadness
  • feelings of guilt and hopelessness
  • loss of interest in hobbies

Your risk for a heart attack and cardiovascular disease increases after age 65.

This is due to age-related changes that can occur in the heart, including high blood pressure (hypertension) and hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis).

Having a heart attack as an older adult also comes with special considerations.

Diet and exercise training are crucial for future heart attack prevention, but it may take longer to recover. Older adults may also be at a higher risk for cognitive issues and reduced functional movements.

To reduce the long-term effects of a heart attack, it’s recommended that older adults be especially vigilant about increasing physical activity when they’re able.

This will help strengthen the heart muscle and protect it from future damage.

Another consideration is trying to reduce your blood pressure, as needed. Hypertension is the most common heart-related condition in adults over age 75.

A stent is used to reduce the chances of a heart attack. This wire-mesh tube is inserted into a blocked artery to help increase blood flow to your heart. The stent is left in place permanently to improve your condition.

When done with a coronary angioplasty, a stent placement opens your arteries and increases blood flow to the heart muscle. Stents reduce your overall risk of experiencing narrowing of that same artery.

However, it’s still possible to have a heart attack in the future from a different clogged artery. That’s why adopting heart-healthy lifestyle habits is so impotant.

Making these changes can play an important role in helping prevent a future attack.

As a rule of thumb, you should see your doctor right away if you experience chest pain — even after a stent placement. In the rare event that a stent closes, you’ll need surgery to open the artery up again.

It’s also possible to experience a blood clot after getting a stent, which could increase your risk of a heart attack.

Your doctor will likely recommend taking aspirin, as well as prescription anti-clotting drugs, such as ticagrelor (Brilinta) or clopidogrel (Plavix) to prevent blood clots.

A heart-healthy lifestyle can complement a medical treatment plan for heart disease. Consider your current lifestyle habits and look for ways you might improve them.


As long as your doctor gives the go-ahead, you may begin an exercise program after you recover from a heart attack.

Regular exercise is certainly important for weight maintenance, but it also works your muscles — the most important muscle being your heart.

Any form of exercise that gets your blood pumping is beneficial. When it comes to heart health, however, aerobic exercise is best. Examples include:

  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging or running
  • walking at a moderate to brisk pace

These forms of exercise help increase the amount of oxygen circulating in your body and also strengthen the heart’s ability to pump it through the bloodstream to the rest of your body.

As an added bonus, regular aerobic exercise also helps reduce:

  • high blood pressure
  • stress
  • cholesterol

If you notice any unusual symptoms while exercising, such as prolonged shortness of breath, weak limbs, or chest pain, stop right away and call 911 or seek emergency medical attention.

Quit smoking

If you smoke, you may have considered quitting in the past, but doing so is even more crucial after a heart attack.

Smoking is a risk factor for heart disease because it increases your blood pressure and risk for clots by reducing oxygen cells within the bloodstream.

This means that your heart works harder to pump blood and has fewer healthy oxygen cells to maintain optimal performance.

Quitting now can significantly improve your overall health and also help reduce the occurrence of future heart attacks. Be sure to avoid secondhand smoke too, as it poses similar dangers in terms of heart health.

Manage other risk factors

Heart disease can run in families, but the majority of heart attacks may be attributed to lifestyle choices.

Aside from diet, exercise, and smoking habits, it’s important to manage other risk factors that might contribute to future heart attacks.

Talk to your doctor about:

  • hypertension
  • high cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • thyroid disease
  • unusual amounts of stress
  • mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression
  • alcohol consumption

You’ll need to enter a cardiac rehabilitation program as well. Doctors and other medical professionals run these programs. They’re designed to monitor your condition and recovery process after a heart attack.

Along with education about lifestyle changes, your cardiac risk factors will be monitored to ensure a healthy recovery. Your doctor will likely talk to you about ways you can monitor your own cardiac risk factors as well.

Possible goal numbers for your risk factors include:

  • blood pressure lower than 130/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury)
  • waist circumference less than 35 inches for women and less than 40 inches for men
  • body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9
  • blood cholesterol under 180 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter)
  • blood glucose under 100 mg/dL (during times of normal fasting)

You’ll get regular readings of these metrics during cardiac rehabilitation. However, it helps to remain aware of these numbers well beyond rehab.

The overall risk of having a heart attack increases with age, especially in men over age 45 and women over age 55.

Early detection and treatment can increase your overall life expectancy after a heart attack. Still, it’s estimated that 20 percent of adults ages 45 and over will experience a second heart attack within 5 years.

There are some estimates that up to 42 percent of women die within a year after a heart attack, while the same scenario occurs in 24 percent of men.

This percentage difference might be due to women having different symptoms than men during a heart attack and therefore not recognizing a heart attack in the early stages.

It’s important to know that many people go on to lead long lives following a heart attack.

There’s no general statistic outlining life expectancy after a heart attack. It’s important to work on your individual risk factors to prevent future episodes.

Give your heart a chance to heal after a heart attack. This means you may need to modify your normal routine and reconsider certain activities for several weeks.

Gradually ease back into your everyday routine so you don’t risk a relapse. You may have to modify your daily activities if they’re stressful.

It may take up to 3 months before your doctor gives you the OK to go back to work.

Depending on the stress level of your job, you may need to significantly cut back on your workload or ease back into it on a part-time basis.

You may not be able to drive a vehicle for at least a week after your heart attack. This restriction may be longer if you have complications.

Each state has different laws, but the general rule is that your condition must be stable for at least 3 weeks before you’re allowed to drive again.

Your doctor will likely advise you to hold off on sex and other physical activities for at least 2 to 3 weeks after your heart attack.

You’re at an increased risk of having another heart attack after you recover from your first one.

It’s vital that you stay in tune with your body and report any symptoms to your doctor immediately, even if they only seem slight.

Call 911 or seek emergency medical attention if you experience:

  • sudden and extreme fatigue
  • chest pain, and pain that travels to one or both arms
  • rapid heartbeat
  • sweatiness (without exercising)
  • dizziness or faintness
  • leg swelling
  • shortness of breath

Improving your heart health after a heart attack depends on how well you stick to your doctor’s treatment plan. It also depends on your ability to identify potential problems.

You should also be aware of the difference in treatment outcomes between men and women after a heart attack.

Researchers found that 42 percent of women die within 1 year of having a heart attack, compared to 24 percent of men.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 805,000 people have heart attacks every year in the United States and that 200,000 of these are people who’ve had a heart attack previously.

Knowing your risk factors and making lifestyle changes can help you become a survivor and enjoy your life.

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