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Cardiac rehab programs benefit the brain as much as the heart, study finds

For immediate release: March 12, 2014, 5 p.m. ET

Exercise boosts blow flow to brain regions responsible for movement, cognition

TORONTO – People who participate in exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation programs not only hike their fitness levels, they improve blood flow to the areas of the brain responsible for motor learning and memory.

According to a study published today in PLOS ONE, a six-month program of aerobic exercise and resistance training increased fitness by 20 per cent in patients with heart disease, resulting in better blood flow and more tissue in regions of the brain responsible for movement and cognition (thinking, reasoning, memory).

“This study is one of the first to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show there are brain regions that benefit from maintaining a healthy aerobic fitness level in patients who have heart conditions,” says lead author Dr. Bradley MacIntosh of the Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery (CPSR), which funded the research. “Doing exercise helps to stimulate particular regions of the brain in a good way.”

The goal of the research, also funded in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is to identify ways to reduce dementia and stroke in people with heart disease, who generally have a sluggish vascular system that puts them at increased risk of small (sometimes called covert) strokes and cognitive problems.

In this study, the nine-member research team looked at how fitness flushes the brain’s grey matter with blood. Using MRI, they examined the brains of 30 Toronto men with coronary artery disease (ages 55 to 80) participating in a moderate exercise and lifestyle management program. The more blood flow to the brain in patients at the outset of the study, the greater gains they made in the exercise program. However, all participants saw benefits for brain health.

“Fitness was associated with maintaining the size of your hippocampus, one of the brain’s most important memory centres that is damaged by cardiovascular problems,” says researcher Dr. Walter Swardfager, also based at Sunnybrook. “The findings offer hope to those living with heart disease who are at greater risk of stroke and developing dementia.”

CPSR Scientific Director Dr. Dale Corbett, Professor of Neurosciences at the University of Ottawa, says: “It is important to note that this study shows that exercise not only helps those patients who are most fit but also those who are quite compromised as a result of their cardiac problems. This is another example of new research showing that exercise can benefit everyone.”

Read the full publication here: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0091251

Download the news release: CardiacRehab-Mar12_FINAL

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