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Sep 17, 2013

Healthy Diet Boosts Chances for Survival After Heart Attack

Study finds that improved eating habits add years to survivors' lives.

Changing your diet could add years to your life after a heart attack, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Boston researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data from two large studies, The Nurses’ Health Study and The Health Professionals Follow-up Study, both of which collect ongoing health and dietary information from more than 172,000 middle-aged men and women. After identifying roughly 4,000 individuals in these studies who were free of heart disease at the start of the study and survived a heart attack during the study period, researchers took a deeper look at their dietary habits. They wondered whether heart attack survivors with healthier diets fared better than those with poor diets, and they were right.

After suffering their first heart attack, women survived 8.7 years and men survived 9 years, on average. But their risk of death varied significantly depending on their diet. Those ranking with the highest scores for a healthy diet had 24% lower risk of death and 26% lower risk of death from cardiovascular causes. Interestingly, the health benefits were even greater for individuals who started out with a poor diet but improved diet quality after their heart attack. Patients making this change had 30% lower risk of death and 40% lower risk of death from cardiovascular causes, compared with those who didn’t make this important lifestyle change.

Having a heart attack drastically increases risk of having a future cardiac event, so steps like improving diet are critical to reducing that risk. In this study, diet was evaluated using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index designed to provide dietary guidelines that help combat chronic diseases, like heart disease. According to this index, the healthiest diets are those high in vegetable, fruit, nuts and soy intake, low in saturated fats, and consisting of more poultry and seafood vs. red meats.

We already know that this heart-healthy diet can help prevent heart disease, but this study shows that implementing a healthy diet after a heart attack can help prevent a second one. So for the 525,000 Americans who suffer their first heart attack each year, improving diet could help save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Who is at risk for heart attack?
  • The most common risk factors for heart attack include increased age, tobacco use, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, stress, illegal drug use, lack of physical activity and family history of heart attack.
  • What should I do to reduce my heart attack risk?

  • Based on study findings and previous guidelines, you can help reduce your risk for heart attack by controlling your cholesterol and blood pressure, quitting smoking (if you’re a smoker), and maintaining a healthy weight. You should also try to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

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