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Life After a Heart Attack: Don't Go It Alone

Why do some people fully recover from heart attacks while others struggle to stay alive? The answer isn't always found in hospital charts or EKG readings. Most successful survivors often have something in common: A strong network of friends and family. If you've recently had a heart attack, you should know that healing isn't just a one-person job.

Whether they're offering a ride to the doctor's office or sharing a few encouraging words, supportive friends and family are good therapy for any illness. And if you're recovering from a heart attack, their support can help keep you alive. One study of nearly 200 heart attack survivors found that people with close confidants were about three times more likely to survive the next six months.

Companions are good for the heart in many ways. For one thing, they can help you adopt and maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle. It's much easier to exercise regularly or stick to a low-fat diet when you have some company. People with strong social support also tend to have lower amounts of cortisol and adrenaline, "stress" hormones that can boost the heart rate and damage arteries.

Armor against depression

Most importantly, strong social ties can provide an armor against depression, a common and sometimes deadly complication of heart disease. On average, people who become depressed after a heart attack are about three to four times more likely to die within six months. Close relationships with friends and family don't provide immunity to depression, of course, but loved ones can detect early signs and clues. If you're having trouble getting your bearings after a heart attack and sink into depression, a combination of intimacy, friendship, and strong family ties can dramatically reduce the danger.

That's the conclusion of a groundbreaking study of nearly 900 heart attack survivors published in the journal Circulation. Among the survivors who had the strongest network of friends and family, depressed patients were no more likely than others to die of heart trouble within a year. In stark contrast, depressed patients with few or no social ties were about 10 times more likely than non-depressed patients to succumb to heart trouble. When patients weren't depressed, social connections had little effect on survival.

Of course, heart rehab programs are also important. You'll need to work with your doctor on getting the exercise and diet you need to keep your heart in good shape. He or she can refer you to a program where you can get counseling on exercise, medication, diet, quitting smoking (if you smoke) and reducing stress. An added plus: You might make new friends in the program.

Reaching out

The message is clear: Heart attack survivors suffering from depression benefit from all the support they can get. After a heart attack, if you aren't already surrounded by friends and family, ask your physician to refer you to a cardiac rehabilitation program where you can meet new people while you learn about your heart and begin to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. You can always take a volunteer job, join a health club (under your doctors' supervision), or find another way to forge new relationships. You might also consider joining a support group. If you've had cardiac bypass surgery, for example, you may want to look into Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization affiliated with the American Heart Association; it's an excellent way to share your experiences and help others preparing for or recovering from the surgery. In short, do anything you can to stay connected. It just may be the best way to stay alive.

Further Resources

Mended Hearts. http://www.mendedhearts.org

References

Social support boosts recovery after heart attack. American College of Cardiology, 2014. https://www.cardiosmart.org/News-and-Events/2014/10/Social-Support-Boosts-Recovery-after-Heart-Attack

Frasure-Smith N et al. Social support, depression, and mortality during the first year after myocardial infarction. Circulation 101:1919-1924.

Rozanski A et al. Impact of Psychological factors on the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease and the implications for therapy. Circulation:2192-2217.

American Psychological Association. Research to the heart of the matter. Monitor on Psychology, Volume 32(1).

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