Heart attacks are a scary, even abstract concept for most of us. But as a nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit (ICU), Tami Alloway devotes her days to helping patients survive and thrive after the event.
A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” the Manhattan, Kan., native got her start in the action-packed emergency room and general intensive care unit. But she always found herself drawn to cardiac patients. “I was interested in how the heart affected everything,” she says.
In honor of National Cholesterol Education Month, we asked Alloway what her seven years in the cardiac ICU have taught her about the mistakes people make when it comes to their heart health. (Guess what? They’re very fixable.)
You think a heart attack won’t happen to you. This mindset is an issue both in patients with a family history of heart problems and in people who live a relatively healthy lifestyle. “Even if someone is active, he can have a build-up of plaque inside the coronary arteries,” she says. Commit to regular check- ups so your doctor can catch potential heart problems early.
You don’t take your medication. A 2009 study in the Journal of Managed Care Pharmacy found that one-third of patients prescribed a cholesterol-lowering statin stopped taking them within a year. Cost is a common factor. Plus, when patients begin to feel better, they think they don’t need the medication anymore, Alloway says. Always talk to your doctor before quitting a medication, she advises. He or she can assess how you’re reacting to the meds, and may be able to help with lower-cost options.
You quit cardiac rehab. Cardiac rehabilitation, which involves six to 12 weeks of monitored exercise that gradually increases in intensity, is typically prescribed after a heart attack or procedures such as angioplasty, stenting or pacemaker insertion. Not only do patients who stick with the program frequently lose weight and lower blood pressure and cholesterol, but those aren’t the only benefits, Alloway says. “When people think of cardiac rehab, they think of physical activity,” she says. “But education is the biggest part: You have to learn to eat the right diet, take the right medications, and know when to go to the doctor.”
You let healthy habits slide around the holidays. Yes, we all do it. But it’s even more important for people with existing heart problems, such as high blood pressure, arrhythmia or coronary artery disease, to be aware of the pitfalls of the holiday season: high- fat or salty foods, family and financial stress, sadness. Even snow that needs shoveling can be trouble, as the activity can stress the heart. Enjoy the season, but keep your heart health top of mind, too.
You ignore depression. Depression is not uncommon after a life-threatening event like a heart attack; in fact, it’s one of the main reasons cardiac patients quit rehab, Alloway says. Be honest with your doctors and nurses about how you’re feeling and be open to a variety of treatment options, from short-term talk therapy to medication. And reach out to your loved ones for help. “The support of family and friends is stronger than any medicine we can give,” Alloway says.
Smart Advice for Hearts—and Lungs
Recent research suggests a new addition to the list of heart disease risk factors: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copD). People with the condition, a progressive lung disease marked by increased breathlessness, were found to be two to three times more likely to develop heart failure than those without copD.
The good news: exercise, already recommended to copD patients to ease symptoms, can help protect their hearts, too. if you or a loved one suffers from the condition, talk to your doctor first; then use these tips from the american lung association and copD foundation to get moving.
- Avoid exercising in extreme temperatures—hot or cold. check the pollen count in your area if that tends to exacerbate your symptoms.
- Take at least 5 minutes to stretch before beginning.
- Keep a steady pace and avoid sudden spikes in intensity.
- If you’re getting more winded than you expected, slow down or pause for 2-3 minutes before continuing.
- Slow your pace if you can’t talk while you’re exercising.
- Consider hobbies like gardening or golf as light heart-boosting activity. Talk to your doctor about modifications you may need to make.