How to Help Your Body Recover From Heart Surgery

In the summer of 2021, J.W. narrowly avoided a "widow maker"...

Over the course of a couple of weeks, J.W. began feeling a bit "off" – not like his usual self – and he experienced a few brief episodes of an irregular heartbeat. He wasn't in any pain or feeling extra tired. But J.W. felt unusual enough that he decided to bring it up with his doctor.

J.W. was no stranger to his cardiologist. He'd been going for regular checkups for about 40 years. And he took care of his health with plenty of daily exercise – like walking and cycling – and eating whole, fresh foods. While it was clear that something was off, he didn't realize how dangerous his situation was, and he was surprised to learn that he would need surgery within a few weeks to avoid a heart attack.

J.W. found out that he was at risk of experiencing a widow maker. This is a type of heart attack that occurs when your heart's left anterior descending ("LAD") artery is blocked. (This is the largest artery that supplies blood to your heart.)

According to the American Heart Association, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack every 40 seconds. And while heart attacks – in general – have a high survival rate (90%), a widow-maker heart attack has a survival rate of about 12% – and if you're already in the hospital when one occurs, your chances of surviving only rise to 25%...

During J.W.'s surgery, however, the doctors realized that putting in stints to hold his arteries open wasn't going to cut it... and that instead, J.W. would require a quadruple bypass. So surgery No. 2 was scheduled in short order, and sections of arteries were taken from J.W.'s arms and legs and used to reroute the flow of blood to and around J.W.'s heart.

Fortunately, J.W. survived his "widow maker in the making." But he had a long and challenging recovery ahead of him. Each year, around 400,000 people in the U.S. have a heart bypass surgery. It is the most common major surgical procedure.

And according to a retrospective study from the Mayo Clinic, heart bypass surgery survival rates are generally high. In a recent study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota reviewed the case studies of nearly 1,300 heart-bypass-surgery recipients over the age of 80 – a group that's considered "high risk" for this type of procedure.

After one year, 90% of the study participants were still alive. At five years, the survival rate was 68%. Ten years after the surgery, 31% of the participants were still alive, and 8% were still alive 15 years later.

February is American Heart Month, and today is Saint Valentine's Day. So on this heart-centric day amid the heart awareness month, I want to share some practical tips on recovering from heart surgery – both physically and mentally.

Physical Rehab Following Heart Surgery

The most immediate physical change you'll experience after heart surgery is having to spend a few weeks sleeping while sitting up. This is because you don't want to put any pressure on your sternum (which is in the middle of your chest) while it heals. But once you're healed, you'll be able to go back to sleeping normally.

There's also a chance you'll need cardiac rehabilitation.

Cardiac rehab is physical activity that is designed to improve your cardiovascular health under the supervision of your medical team. There are three aspects to cardiac rehab:

  1. Exercise counseling and training – This teaches you how to move your body in ways that will strengthen your heart. You will also be closely monitored to make sure you're moving at the right pace to allow your heart (and the rest of your body) to heal properly.
  2. Education for living heart-healthy – Here you will learn about managing your risk factors and making decisions that will promote your health and healing.
  3. Stress-reduction counseling – This aspect of rehab helps you identify stressors in your life and encourages you to develop healthy strategies to deal with those stressors.

Usually, cardiac rehab lasts about three months, but depending on your particular set of circumstances, it can last anywhere from two to eight months.

You'll also likely need to rehab your diet...

After bypass surgery, it's recommended that folks avoid foods that are high in fat and cholesterol to help keep their blood vessels clear and free from buildup. This includes fried foods, baked desserts, whole milk, cheese, butter, and fatty meats. However, beware of foods that come in packages claiming to be "low in fat." Oftentimes these foods are pumped with added sugar to improve the taste and make up for the lack of fat. Avoid eating highly processed foods as much as you can.

J.W. found that his taste buds changed after his surgery... almost as if his body started reacting to food in a way to protect him better by avoiding foods that were not good for him or his heart health. So, lots of foods that are high in fat or sugar just aren't as appealing to him as they used to be.

Turns out, the Mediterranean diet (our favorite way of eating) was just what the doctor ordered for J.W. The Mediterranean diet incorporates foods like whole grains, nuts, olive oil, fresh fruits and veggies, seafood, and beans to feed you in a very healthy way. (We've written about the Mediterranean diet many times.)

Of course, it's not just your body that suffers after surgery... Your mind does as well.

On Thursday, I'll share the biggest mental challenge patients face after surgery and how to overcome it.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 14, 2023