What's good for the heart can also help the brain

If you've suffered a heart attack, undergone a heart procedure such as bypass, or been diagnosed with heart failure, cardiac rehabilitation can be one of your strongest allies in recovery and preventing a subsequent coronary event from occurring. But the benefits of cardiac rehabilitation are not limited to the heart, research is finding. People who experience mild strokes or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)—often referred to as "ministrokes"—can also benefit.

Researchers have hypothesized that at least 80 percent of recurrent vascular events following a stroke or TIA could be prevented with the use of a cardiac rehab program.

Risk factors are similar

That TIAs—which substantially increase the risk of a full-blown stroke—might respond to such an intervention is understandable, since they have many of the same risk factors as heart disease. A 2011 study published in the journal Stroke took 100 people who had experienced a TIA or mild stroke within the past year and placed them in a cardiac rehabilitation program. Among these study participants, all the usual culprits for increasing heart disease and stroke risks were present, including inactive lifestyles, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diabetes and smoking.

For seven and a half months, participants underwent several interventions: They took part in a regular exercise program, followed a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, were encouraged to take part in smoking-cessation groups, and if needed, received psychologist referrals to address mental health issues, such as depression and stress, that could be adversely affecting their physical well-being.

By the end of the study, participants had increased their peak exercise capacity by an average of about 31 percent and experienced significant decreases in total cholesterol (an average of 11.6 mg/dL), triglycerides (23.9 mg/dL), waist circumference (one inch) and body mass index (0.5 kg/m2). A good number of the smokers also successfully quit, and some patients, who were previously considered to be facing a moderate to high risk of death in the following year, were reassigned to the low risk category.

Additional benefits included slight decreases in LDL cholesterol and blood pressure readings, and slight increases in HDL cholesterol—although results were not striking enough to be considered statistically significant.

The core of cardiac rehabilitation

A cardiac rehabilitation program is a medically supervised program with several key components that, along with medications in certain cases, can help address issues such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other heart attack and stroke risk factors. These components include:

  • Exercise regimen. Before you ever set foot on a piece of exercise equipment, a team of experts assesses your exercise capacity and recommends a safe and effective workout program. Typically, a program includes a mix of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises performed at an onsite rehabilitation facility and at home three to times a week for up to 45 minutes at a time.
  • Diet revamp. In addition to physicians and cardiac specialists, a rehabilitation team will most likely include a dietitian, who can help plan heart-healthy meals that are appropriate to help an individual lose weight and that are low in unhealthy fats—saturated and trans fats—as well as cholesterol and sodium. For those with diabetes, a dietitian can also help keep or get blood sugar levels under control.
  • Smoking cessation. Quitting is no easy feat, which is why cardiac rehabilitation programs usually offer smoking-cessation aids, such as support groups and smoking-cessation classes.
  • Support. Health problems can trigger a lot of emotions, ranging from anger to depression and anxiety. These negative emotions can affect overall health and recovery, so it's important for people experiencing them to talk to a qualified counselor, psychologist or other health professional.

Publication Review By: Lawrence Appel, M.D., and Rafael H. Llinas, M.D.

Published: 15 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015