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Many Patients Pass Up Life-Saving Cardiac Rehabilitation

Cardiac disease is an enormous killer worldwide. About 17 million people a year die young from preventable cardiac disease. Most of those deaths take place in developing countries.

For people with heart disease, monitored exercise - or cardiac rehabilitation - is one of the best treatments to extend life. Most people engage in cardiac rehab after they've had a heart attack or stroke. Sometimes, if they have heart disease, their doctor will have them exercise under supervision as a preventive strategy.

Now research finds that many people don't take advantage of this treatment regimen that could extend their lives

Don Shepard from Brandeis University analyzed data about cardiac rehabilitation for more than half a million patients in the United States. He compared tens of thousands of patients who did and didn't have cardiac rehab after having a heart attack.

"The group without cardiac rehab had a 37.8 percent chance of dying over five years, a little over third, and the group that had cardiac rehab, it was 29.8 percent, so it's a little over a quarter," he says.

Shepard's analysis also found that the exercise regimen is exceptionally beneficial, especially for the frailest patients.

"One example was by age... the people who gained the most benefit are the extreme aged. People over 85 gained much more than people who are just in their 60s," Shepard explains.

A treatment that's easy, affordable and should be widespread

But Shepard found that most heart patients didn't engage in cardiac rehabilitation. He says that's in part because they - and their doctors - don't know how powerful it can be for helping cardiac patients heal.

And Shepard says it's not just patients in Western countries who can have cardiac rehab. It's a treatment regimen that's easily extended to patients in developing countries.

In addition to exercise, there are other important elements to cardiac rehab.

"There's generally instruction about diet, and instruction about reducing stress, are two other important components in the program," Shepard says. "[It's] primarily exercise and diet instruction."

While the regimen is performed in gyms and clinics in Western countries, Shepard says there are protocols that make it easy for patients to go outside and walk and get the same exercise and the same benefits as they do in cardiac rehab performed in a gym.

"There's some programs where people exercise at home that one could just come to a facility for initial instruction and then continue at home, as a way of making it available very widely in developing countries," he says.

Shepard says cardiac rehab saves lives and should be used more, especially by those who think they might not benefit.

His research is published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.