If you have heart disease or even just heart disease risk factors, you have probably been told that you and your healthcare providers are part of a “team.” But that leaves out some pretty important teammates: your family and friends. Whether it’s helping you adjust to a more heart-healthy lifestyle or knowing the warning signs and how to respond to a heart attack or stroke, your loved ones can have a significant impact on your physical and emotional health in the years ahead.
Including your spouse, children and others close to you soon after a heart disease diagnosis will make the transition easier, says Haitham Ahmed, MD, with Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at ClevelandClinic.
“If you have heart disease, you may be on certain cardiac medications and may also be on the lookout for certain symptoms related to your heart,” he says. “It is nice to share this information with your loved ones so that they know how to help you if ever needed. Also, in general, you will have started changing your lifestyle toward a heart-healthy one. This involves a healthier diet, more exercise, smoking avoidance, and stress reduction. When your loved ones understand your plans and the reasons why you intend to make changes, they are able to partner with you more seamlessly.”
Heart Attack and Stroke 101
To start with, Dr. Ahmed recommends educating your loved ones about the definition, symptoms and response to a heart attack and stroke.
A heart attack is heart muscle damage due to an interruption of blood flow. It can be caused by a blockage or spasm of the coronary blood vessels. “Typical symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain or pressure, chest squeezing, chest tightness, trouble breathing, dizziness, sweating, or palpitations,” Dr. Ahmed says. “Less-typical symptoms include loss of consciousness, fatigue, weakness, arm numbness, nausea, or vomiting. If a loved one is with you while you are experiencing these symptoms then they can help you take an aspirin tablet. It is preferable to chew the aspirin for faster effect. If you were previously prescribed nitroglycerin by your physician, you can take one sublingual nitroglycerin under the tongue.”
He adds that if you are not responsive then your loved one should know to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if he or she is trained to do so. But be sure that everyone around you knows that if heart attack symptoms appear, they should call 911, especially if you are unresponsive. A solid understanding of what to do when you’re in distress is one of the most important things your family should know.
“Similar to a heart attack, a stroke occurs when the blood flow to the brain is compromised,” Dr. Ahmed says. “A stroke can also occur when there is bleeding in the brain. Typical symptoms of a stroke include weakness on one side, slurred speech or other difficulties forming the right words, facial droop, or asymmetrical smile. If you notice these symptoms, do not give aspirin, since brain bleeding needs to be ruled out first. Instead, you should immediately call 911.”
To help you educate your family and friends, Dr. Ahmed suggests taking advantage of resources in your area. Your local hospital or public health agency may offer programs for people with heart disease and their families and caregivers. He adds that it’s usually an easy sell to have a spouse or someone else close to you jump into the role of heart-health co-pilot.
“When someone loves you and cares about your wellbeing they will be eager to learn how to help you be healthier,” Dr. Ahmed says. “There are many terrific community engagements and public panels that educate the public about heart disease. If allowed by your cardiac rehab center, taking a partner with you for the educational sessions may be very enlightening as well.”
Dr. Ahmed says that of the vast amount of information online, the American Heart Association (AHA) has some very helpful resources and free information for patients and their loved ones. The AHA has a detailed collection of support networks and other information for caregivers at http://bit.ly/2nnxglJ. Your local hospital, AHA chapter or other organization may offer caregiver classes or support groups. Encourage your loved ones to participate in these programs, especially if your care requires a lot of time and energy of those around you.
Don’t Forget Your Feelings
Heart disease is much more than a physical condition. A heart attack, stroke or even a diagnosis that you’re at high risk for one of these events can trigger feelings of depression and anxiety. This is quite common, and come cardiologists are quick to ask about how you’re coping emotionally with this change in your life. But if your doctor doesn’t bring it up, you should feel comfortable doing so with your cardiologist or another healthcare provider. And don’t hesitate to seek out a mental health professional, too. But along the way, share your feelings with those who know you best, too.
“Sometimes after a heart attack, it takes longer for the psyche to heal than it does the heart,” Dr. Ahmed says. “Having a supportive team around you, including doctors, nurses, rehabilitation staff, nutritionists, family, and friends, really goes a long way in helping you heal and get stronger. Heart disease is a chronic disease. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s important to have good support for the long haul. It’s normal to feel like you have had a ‘rude awakening’ or even feel depressed for up to four weeks after a heart attack. But if you notice your depressive symptoms persisting beyond one month then it’s important to discuss this with your doctor.”
Benefits of Team-Building
As you put together your heart-health team, remind your family and friends that they can also enjoy the advantages that come with thisprocess.
“Creating a heart-healthy home benefits everyone in the house,” Dr. Ahmed says. “Studies show that up to 50 percent of heart disease risk can be avoided with adoption of a heart-healthy lifestyle consisting of a healthy diet, smoking avoidance, regular exercise, and maintenance of a normal body mass index. Everyone in the home gets these benefits, not just you.”
And if you’re feeling like you don’t want to burden others with your health challenge, Dr. Ahmed says you may be surprised how eager your family and friends are to be part of your recovery and your new healthier life.
“When you love someone, you will do everything you can to contribute to their health and happiness,” Dr. Ahmed says. “If you have had heart disease, I assure you that your loved ones will appreciate your sharing information, concerns, and goals with them. Having more information empowers your loved ones to partner with you, care for you better, and walk with you along this journey. As always, communication is key.”