Here’s How Your Life Expectancy Actually Changes Post-Heart Attack, Based on Your Age


Having a heart attack can drastically change the course of your life. Once you recover at the hospital, you’ll have to meet up with a cardiologist regularly and implement lifestyle changes that nurture your heart. Despite these positive steps, it’s still possible your life expectancy post-heart attack will change, especially depending on your age.

About 805,000 people have a heart attack in the U.S. every year, with someone having a heart attack every 40 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though common, and fatal in serious cases, most people make a full recovery, according to Nikki Bart, MD, a heart failure and heart transplant cardiologist at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

Here, cardiologists explain how your life expectancy changes after a heart attack, how long it takes to heal, and how you can improve your longevity after this life-changing event.

First, what causes a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when there isnโ€™t enough blood flow to the heart muscle, per theย Cleveland Clinic. Without proper blood flow and oxygen, the heart muscle begins to die, causing a heart attack. This medical emergency can result in permanent heart damage if not treated properly and in time.

The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary artery diseaseโ€”a type of heart disease that causes plaque to build up in your arteries, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Over time, plaque buildup will block blood flow to your heart and result in a heart attack.

You’re at higher risk for heart attack if you have the following, per the CDC:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Obesity
  • Poor diet and sedentary lifestyle

What are the signs of a heart attack? When to go to the ER

Signs of a heart attack can vary from person to person. While some symptoms are mild (or even non-existent), others can be severe, per the Mayo Clinic. Some of the most common heart attack warning signs include the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Arm or shoulder pain
  • Cold sweat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Neck, jaw, or back pain

If you notice any signs of a heart attack, call 911 and get to the ER immediately. Even if youโ€™re unsure whether or not a heart attack is happening, itโ€™s better to get help either way. They can treat any other underlying causes of your symptoms.

Life expectancies after a heart attack by ageย 

“Having a heart attack is a warning sign that you’re at risk of more heart attacks,” says Dr. Bart. Subsequent heart attacks are most likely to happen within 90 days after the first, further threatening your life expectancy.

โ€œSubsequent heart attacks in this vulnerable period are a major second hit and can reduce your life expectancy by a staggering 50 percent over the next five years,โ€ says Dr. Bart. โ€œThe estimated lifetime risk of having a second heart attack is 54 percent, but for patients who focus on prevention and optimize all risk factors, this drops to 21 percent,” she adds.

“For the average patient this translates to an extra 7.5 event-free years of life,โ€ adds Dr. Bart.

Post-heart attack lifespan also depends on how old a person is when they have a heart attack. Here are some stats:

  • Older adults, particularly those 85 and older, tend to have the lowest life expectancy post-heart attack, says Dr. Bart.
  • According to the American Heart Associationย (AHA), the average age for a first heart attack is 65 years old for people assigned male at birth, and 72 years old for people assigned female at birth. Heart attack survival rates also depend on age.
  • People 65 and older were three times more likely to die from a heart attack compared to younger people ages 18 to 64, according to a September 2017 study in Annals of Internal Medicine.
  • According to the same study, the chance of dying within 30 days of a heart attack was 9.4 percent for older people and only 3 percent for younger patients.โ€œThis is because they likely already have multiple medical conditions that contribute to slow recovery,โ€ says Dr. Bart, along with the fact that they typically tend to have more serious heart attacks.
  • โ€œYounger people with multiple medical conditions at the time of their heart attack also have a lower life expectancy,” adds Dr. Bart.

โ€œThe risk of having a second heart attack is 54 percent, but for patients who focus on prevention, this drops to 21 percent.”โ€”Nikki Bart, MD, cardiologist

How long does it take for your heart to heal after a heart attack?ย 

Heart attack recovery looks different for everyone. And because everyone’s heart and body is different, recovery time can vary, too.

Recovery time โ€œdepends on if you had any significant scarring from your heart attack, or if there were dangerous arrhythmias,โ€ says Stephanie Saucier, MD, a cardiologist and co-director of the Womenโ€™s Heart Wellness Program for Hartford Healthcareโ€™s Heart and Vascular Institute.

โ€œSome peopleโ€™s hearts never fully heal from a heart attack. Others, with intervention and proper medications, may maintain their myocardial function. We often check somewhere between 45 days to 90 days after a heart attack to see if cardiac function has recovered or improved.โ€

Bottom line? Recovery can take anywhere between two weeks to more than three months, per Dr. Bart. This all depends on the type of heart attack, treatment received, response time, and your overall medical status.

How to increase your longevity post-heart attackย 

Lifestyle habits and heart-attack treatment options can increase life expectancy if proper steps are taken, per Dr. Saucier. She and Dr. Bart suggest these heart-health tips to increase longevity:

Have a conversation with your doctor as soon as possible after a heart attack

โ€œOne of my goals as a cardiologist is to get people to understand the urgency about talking to your doctor about the right treatment plan for you, especially those who’ve had a heart attack or who are at high risk,โ€ says Dr. Bart.

โ€œIt can be easy to put off scheduling an appointment, but you donโ€™t want to wait when it comes to taking care of your heart health,โ€ she adds.

Follow a healthy diet and exercise routine

Try to eat more high-fiber foods and things low in saturated and trans fats, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, poultry, or fish, says Dr. Saucier.

As for exercise, the CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Make it part of your daily routine by finding movement you enjoy, whether thatโ€™s brisk walking to reduce heart disease risk, using light weights, or swimming.

Limit tobacco and alcohol

Using tobacco products or heavily drinking alcohol can put you at risk for another cardiovascular event, because it increases your levels of triglyceridesโ€”a fatty deposit that can build up and create a blockage within your blood vessels, per Dr. Saucier. It also increases inflammation and promotes the process by which lipids build up in plaques in the walls of arteries.

If you’re looking to quit smoking, reach out to your doctor for support. They can recommend online or in-person smoking cessation programs and other resources.

Try out a cardiac rehab program

It’s best for anyone who’s had a heart attack to enroll in a cardiac rehab program, says Dr. Bart. This is typically a structured program for exercise, risk-factor management, and education to navigate life after a heart attack. Each program will likely look slightly different, depending on the hospital or medical center you get care from.

Staying consistent with this rehabilitation program, and learning as many heart health tips as possible, canย  increase your chances of a better quality of life after a heart attack.

Take any prescribed medication

Heart medications are essential to prevent future heart attacks and repair your heart from damage. According to the Mayo Clinic, heart attack patients may be prescribed one (or more) of the following:

  • Aspirin
  • Blood-thinners
  • Beta blockers
  • Statins
  • Blood pressure medicine
  • Morphine
  • Nitroglycerin

Manage your risk factors

Understanding your risk factors for heart attack and heart disease is the first step to reducing them. After a heart attack, getting on top of conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure, and stress levels is essential. Your doctor can help you create short-term and long-term health goals to meet. And if you’re unsure about anything or have concerns, let your doctor know. They are there to help, says Dr. Bart.

How to prevent heart attacksย 

Heart attacks and other heart issues are sometimes preventable, but there are factors out of our control, like genetics.

โ€œIf you have a first-degree relative (e.g. parent or sibling) who’s had a heart attack, especially at a young age, then you’re at higher risk of the same,โ€ says Dr. Bart. โ€œKnowing this now is empowering because it means you can get early screening and treatment if necessary.โ€

Modifiable risk factors that you can realistically treat or reduce include high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, diet, exercise, sleep, and stress. โ€œThere is an interplay between these risk factors as well, so optimizing one may improve others,โ€ says Dr. Bart.

When to see a doctorย 

No matter your age, life expectancy after a heart attack is different for everyone, and depends on many factors. The most important step is to get help as soon as you see signs of a heart attack.

If you’ve had a heart attack, getting regular checkups with your doctorโ€”both physicals with your primary-care doctor and check-ins with your cardiologistโ€”and working with other experts, like a preventive cardiology nutritionist, are also important and can help you recover fully.

Lastly, it’s important to manage “modifiable” risk factors, like diet and exercise, to improve your life expectancy as you age.

FAQ

What is your life expectancy after having stents put in?

A stent is a small, mesh tube used to hold open weakened or narrowed blood vessels in the body, and are often used in coronary arteries to help deliver more blood to the heart, per the NHLBI.

Your life expectancy after getting a stent varies from person to person, says Dr. Saucier. It’s based on several factors, including heart-health risks like diabetes, weight management, blood pressure control, and smoking. Life expectancy will also depend on the degree of damage caused by the heart attack or cardiac event.

Can I strengthen my heart after a heart attack?

With proper treatment, it’s possible to strengthen your heart after a heart attack, says Dr. Bart. โ€œThe correct heart medications have a powerful role in remodeling your heart,โ€ she adds.

Exercise will also help strengthen your heart long term. โ€œEnrolling in cardiac rehab will also give you the power to understand how to build back your cardiovascular fitness slowly, and then build an exercise program into your daily life,” adds Dr. Bart.


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