The Long-Term Effects of a Heart Attack on the Cardiovascular System

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With prompt medical intervention, you can survive a heart attack, but there are physical and emotional aftereffects to address for well-being.
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A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart is interrupted, restricting the heart's access to oxygen. With prompt medical intervention, you can survive a heart attack, but there are physical and emotional aftereffects to address for well-being.

Treatment after a heart attack will likely include lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, switching to a heart-healthy diet and incorporating more physical activity into your routine. Your doctor may prescribe medications and cardiac rehabilitation — that's a care plan individualized to your specific needs and one that takes into account potential lingering effects.

Jeff Johnson, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, notes that you may experience some symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath and fatigue short-term after a heart attack. "It is possible that with time and proper treatment, these symptoms may improve and/or resolve," he adds. Beyond short-term aftereffects, you may experience more lingering ones that need to be treated and managed.

Angina

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), it is not uncommon for heart attack survivors to experience chest pain after physical exertion. This pain, called angina, is different from the type of chest pain associated with a heart attack. Angina pain does not last as long and usually goes away with rest or medication. The AHA recommends that all chest pain be checked out by a doctor. If you are unsure if your chest pain is angina or a heart attack, do not wait to schedule an appointment — call 911 immediately.

About 20 percent of people older than 45 who have had a heart attack will have a second heart attack within five years of the first, according to AHA. Keep in mind that symptoms of a second heart attack may feel different from the first. Seek medical attention immediately if there are any doubts. Don't risk it.

Read more: The Best Cardio Exercises for Heart Patients

Arrhythmia

In order for the heart to pump correctly, an exact sequence must happen to take an electrical impulse from one part of the heart (the right atrium), down a trail of fibers and then to all other parts of the heart, states the AHA. Damage from a heart attack, such as scar tissue, may get in the way of this natural sequence and negatively impact the heart rate. When a heart beats too fast, too slow or in an irregular fashion, this is an arrhythmia.

The condition may be treated with medication or a temporary or permanent pacemaker, says AHA. And for life-threatening cases, a device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) may be recommended by your treatment team.

Ischemic Heart Failure

When the heart is deprived of oxygen during a heart attack, cardiac tissue is damaged, creating a weakened heart. Afterwards, this damage may affect the heart's ability to adequately pump blood to get the levels of blood and oxygen the body needs. This deficiency is called heart failure.

The National Institutes of Health explains that, in severe cases, when critical amounts of cardiac tissue cells are damaged, scar tissue can form, the walls of heart ventricles may become thin and blood flow and pressure problems may occur. Current treatments are not able to restore function to damaged tissue, NIH says. Medically implanted devices may be suggested as a treatment in severe cases. Medication may be given to help manage the downstream effects caused by the weakened heart muscle.

Depression and Anxiety

After a heart attack, people often face a range of emotions — joy for being alive, of course, but also fear of another heart attack and anxiety about being able to maintain new lifestyle changes. Yes, life after a heart attack is different, and adjusting can be hard. About a third of people who've had a heart attack develop some level of depression, says AHA.

Depression may impact your ability to care for yourself, so it's important to seek support before it can negatively affect your physical health. Talk it out by checking in with a trusted family member, friend or your doctor to share the feelings you're experiencing. The AHA has an online support forum if you want to connect with others dealing with similar feelings.

Read more: 8 Warning Signs of Depression You Shouldn't Ignore

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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