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Published on August 20, 2019

Doing this can add 5 years to your life after a heart attack

Cardiac Rehab

If someone offered you a chance to add five years to your life, would you take it? Surprisingly, four out of five people don’t, when it comes to doing cardiac rehab after a heart attack.

“Many years ago it was just thought to be a good idea, but now it’s proven to be effective,” said John J. Guerin, MD, FACC, a Falmouth cardiologist and medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Falmouth Hospital.

Studies in recent years show that people who complete a cardiac rehabilitation program can increase their life expectancy by up to five years, reduce all-cause mortality by up to 24 percent and reduce readmission rates, according to the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation.

Yet fewer than 20 percent of all eligible patients participate in a cardiac rehab program, according to the American Heart Association.

“People who have to be pushed into the program come out being the biggest cheerleaders,” said Dr. Guerin. “We get tons of people saying afterwards how beneficial it was for them in all aspects.”

Despite what some people think, cardiac rehab is more than exercise, although that is an important component, he said.

“Most people believe a big benefit is the psychosocial aspects – exercising with people who have been through what you’ve been through. People can be nervous about getting back to exercise, and you feel a lot more comfortable doing it in a monitored setting.”

How it Works

Cardiac rehab patients typically attend 90-minute sessions three times a week for 13 weeks in Falmouth or the Cape Cod Healthcare Cardiac Rehabilitation program in Hyannis. Working with a team that includes nurses, physical therapists and exercise therapists, they are closely supervised while exercising, including having their blood pressure and heart rate monitored.

The program includes risk factor modification, such as smoking cessation, diabetes control and cholesterol reduction. Patients receive nutritional guidance and meet with a social worker and psychologist.

“There can be a lot of depression after these types of life-altering events,” said Dr. Guerin. “For some people, it’s the first time they knew they had any illness at all. All of a sudden, there’s chest pain and they had a heart attack or bypass surgery, and it’s just a whirlwind.”

Typical Patient

Cardiac rehabilitation was initially aimed at people recovering from a recent heart attack, myocardial infarction, or coronary bypass surgery. It’s since been extended to people who have had valve replacement surgery, with or without bypass, as well as some people with congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy or a weak heart muscle.

Cardiac rehab begins anywhere from six weeks to three months after a cardiac event.

“A typical patient would be someone who had bypass surgery at Cape Cod hospital, spent two days to two weeks at a rehab center and started a walking program at home,” said Dr. Guerin. “A couple of weeks after that, we’d start the cardiac rehab program.”

Some eligible patients skip enrolling in a cardiac rehabilitation because they’re in a hurry to get back to work and don’t want to make the time commitment, he said.

“Then there’s patient resistance. Some people just don’t want to do it, especially older men. But if they get talked into it, they almost universally are the biggest cheerleaders afterwards.”