ABOVE: More Canadians than ever are now surviving heart attacks and strokes, but not everyone who is getting a second chance at life is making the most of it. Christina Stevens explains.
TORONTO – Nadia Bender isn’t like most Canadians. The Toronto mother of two is a personal trainer, who eats healthy, keeps in shape and spends her day in the gym.
She doesn’t fit the typical profile of a heart attack patient, but last July Bender had a heart attack.
While working out on vacation in Cuba, she says she was overcome with chest pain. That pain followed her back to Canada where she experienced it again.
“The pain was like a sharp razor pain digging into my chest. It was taking my breath away so anytime I wanted to take a breath it would get sharper. I had to lay there and calm myself down,” she said.
Bender had suffered a heart attack. One of her arteries was 95 per cent clogged while the other was at 80 per cent.
Doctors told her that if she wasn’t as healthy as she was, and if she waited any longer to come to hospital, she could have lost her life.
A new Heart and Stroke Foundation report says that there are more Canadians surviving a heart attack or stroke than ever before, but these survivors aren’t taking on lifestyle changes to prevent a secondary incident.
Over the course of the past 60 years, the death rate has declined by more than 75 per cent. Right now, more than 90 per cent of Canadians who have a heart attack and 80 per cent of those who have a stroke and make it to hospital survive. Last year alone, there were 165,000 survivors of heart disease and stroke, the national organization says.
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The trouble is that survivors aren’t adopting exercise, managing stress, maintaining a healthy weight or making important lifestyle changes. The report refers to a poll that suggests that 50 per cent of survivors couldn’t maintain healthy changes and some didn’t even try at all.
“We cannot control all the factors that put us at risk for cardiovascular disease, but there are healthy changes people can make to largely prevent them from having a heart attack or stroke in the first place, including eating a healthy diet,” said Dr. Beth Abramson, a St. Michael’s Hospital doctor and spokesperson for the organization.
For Bender, recovering from her heart attack meant re-evaluating her diet and getting rid of caffeine. It also meant cardiac rehabilitation. Once a week, she’d head to a hospital for physical exercise and for mental support to help her go through the aftershock of what happened.
What surprised her was that some of her fellow survivors weren’t making the most of their time in rehab. They’d do the minimum requirements, walk a lap around the track and cut their session 20 minutes short, for example.
Survivors face plenty of barriers in adapting to a healthier lifestyle, but the report names motivation as a primary hurdle.
Bender knows firsthand how difficult it was to get back to her healthy habits. She was out of hospital five days later but it took about six weeks until she returned to the gym as a personal trainer.
At first, when she took up walking, she had to start slow and cope with aches all over her body while learning how to take deep breaths. Simple everyday tasks like cooking dinner or cleaning up the house became a “real challenge” because it took her a lot longer.
“It was getting used to the body reacting to stress and when I would get myself worked up, I felt my chest tighten up,” she said.
“I can see how as much as people want to recover, it really takes time and a mental effort to get over the fear of pushing yourself again.”
“It’s sad to hear these stories. I know after a heart attack or stroke, a person’s future risk is even greater, so these are the people who need to pay attention to their heart health,” Abramson said.
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Abramson said survivors and their families may not understand what changes need to be made, or they could be dealing with financial constraints or limited time to buy healthy food, prepare homemade meals or exercise.
The report echoes the sentiments of a 2013 report out of McMaster University. It suggested that heart attack and stroke survivors weren’t giving up smoking, and for the most part, they weren’t eating healthier and committing to exercise either.
Abramson says that the guidelines doled out to heart attack survivors and heart disease patients – healthy diet, regular exercise, no smoking, managing stress and limiting alcohol – apply to every day Canadians, too.
Keep in mind, each year there are 70,000 heart attacks and 50,000 strokes in Canada. Some 1.6 million people already live with heart disease.
Abramson also reminds Canadians that heart attack and stroke are “equal opportunity killers” that affect men and women, rich and poor.
While Bender is on the mend months later, she’s still surprised she had a heart attack.
“It was really hard to believe it. I had no pain in my arms, no heart disease, no smoking, I’m not diabetic. There was no reason for me to have a heart attack,” she said.
Read the full Heart and Stroke Foundation report here.