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Women's Health: Women benefit from exercise after a heart attack

But improvements are needed in rehab program participation rates as well as initial treatment

Women can improve their health after a heart attack by participating in a program involving supervised exercise and counselling, but they aren’t signing up for these programs as often as they should.

In the U.S., for example, participation rates for cardiac rehab programs range from only 10 to 20 per cent, says Dr. Leslie Cho, a heart specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. “Under-use of cardiac rehab is in part due to low patient referral rates, particularly in women, the elderly and ethnic minorities,” she says.

Cho and her colleagues analysed data on more than 1,000 women and men who completed a 12-week cardiac rehab program at the Cleveland Clinic that included medical evaluation, education, counselling and supervised exercise. They found that the women benefited just as much as the men.

Women entering the program had a significantly lower exercise capacity than men, but both groups improved their ability to exercise by similar amounts. Women also reported lower initial mental and physical quality-of-life scores than men, but both groups reported improved scores after completing the program.

Cho says the women’s poorer condition upon entering the program was not a surprise, because similar disparities have been shown in other studies. “Women continue to have poorer therapy, they tend to get medication much later when they present to the emergency room with a heart attack,” she says.

“I think some of that has to do with the fact that we’re still trying to get our patients to recognize symptoms and to treat it in a serious manner. I think for years and years we’ve done a fantastic job of telling our female patients to watch for breast cancer, but did a poor job of teaching them about heart disease.”

She notes the study findings also demonstrate that women need to be further encouraged to use cardiac rehab programs. “With cardiac rehab, (women) derived similar functional and psychological benefit as men. These findings confirm cardiac rehab benefiting women and men, and the need for continued quality improvement in the care of women with heart disease.”