Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Too few get the best therapy for an ailing heart

Heart Beat

Too few get the best therapy for an ailing heart

After having a heart attack or a stent put in to hold open a blocked coronary artery, what's the best thing you can do for your heart, arteries, and long-term health? Give yourself a gold star if you answered "go through a cardiac rehabilitation program."

Such programs have been shown to reduce deaths by up to 25% during the few years following the heart attack or procedure. That's at least as good as taking aspirin, a beta blocker, a statin, or a combination of these. And the benefits of cardiac rehabilitation go beyond survival and heart health. These programs improve muscle strength, lung function, and endurance, all of which are essential for returning to an active life after a heart attack or other cardiac event. They also offer knowledge and the possibility of new personal connections that can keep all parts of you healthy. Yet barely 20% of people who are eligible for cardiac rehabilitation (see "Is cardiac rehab for you?") take part in a program.

Is cardiac rehab for you?

In reality, anyone can sign up for a cardiac rehabilitation program. The catch is that insurers will pay for it only for individuals who

  • have had a heart attack

  • have undergone angioplasty, with or without a stent

  • have had bypass surgery

  • have stable angina (chest pain on exertion)

  • have had a heart valve repaired or replaced

  • have undergone a heart or lung transplant.

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