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Survivors of heart attacks and strokes could do more to live healthy, cut risks

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TORONTO - Many Canadians who survive a heart attack or stroke are failing to make healthy changes that reduce the risk of the potentially catastrophic attacks occurring again, according to a new poll.

The online survey done for the Heart and Stroke Foundation found more than half of respondents who needed to adopt healthier behaviours such as getting physically active or eating better couldn't make the changes stick or didn't try in the first place.

That means while the vast majority of those who suffer a heart attack or stroke and get to hospital will live, more work needs to be done to ensure survivors start living healthier to help prevent the major medical events from striking again, the group says in its survey report.

"The problem is that many of us who are at risk — and people who have had a heart attack are at the greatest risk of recurring heart attacks — are not making the lifestyle changes we need," said Dr. Beth Abramson, report author and Toronto cardiologist.

"We need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk."

And at the top of the list of reasons why those changes don't sink in is lacklustre motivation, according to the survey.

A slim majority of those polled said surviving was akin to being given a "second chance" and would improve their health, while roughly the same number did report living a "little healthier" after a heart attack or stroke.

Abramson said that while for many the "initial scare" spurs better habits and routines, those healthy behaviours can wane over the long term as the medical crisis fades from memory.

"People forget about their events. So seven or 10 years later they might forget why do I take this medication or why is that important, because 'out of sight, out of mind.'"

Abramson called the survey a "wake-up call" for both survivors to be more aware of the importance of healthy living and physicians to better ensure patients with cardiovascular disease make those changes last and not end up back in hospital.

One thing nearly all respondents deemed a big help was support from family and friends.

"When a family is involved, when friends are involved and you have a support network, it's easier to understand that these changes are a lifelong process," Abramson said.

And that emotional boost can also get those who went through cardiac arrest or stroke into rehabilitation, according to the health group. A minority of patients are referred to such programs, it states, while only 60 per cent of those surveyed finished a full course of rehab.

Personal trainer Nadia Bender felt chest pains while teaching a class at her Toronto studio last year. But the 46-year-old fitness buff didn't realize she had suffered a heart attack until later discussing her symptoms with a nurse at her daughter's soccer game — and was then taken to hospital right from the sidelines.

"They were completely surprised when they found the blockages," Bender said.

She says support from those around her helped her get through a comprehensive four-month rehab program.

"I relied a lot on my family and on my friends to help me with my daily activities, to help me with my kids, taking them to events, getting things done," Bender said.

"Once you've had such an event happen to you, you reassess everything that's going on in your life and it can become overwhelming. You really need a hand to hold or someone supporting you to help you get through it."

The online poll was conducted by Environics Research Group between Nov. 25 and Dec. 3, 2013 and surveyed 2,010 Canadians who survived a heart attack or stroke, or had a living immediate family member or very close friend who had a heart attack or stroke in the past decade and were questioned about their perceptions of the survivor's experiences.

The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

Follow @willcampbll on Twitter.

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