Vitality: Can exercise or brain training improve cognitive outcomes after stroke?

Group of older adults exercising.

Diseases of the brain and blood vessels, such as stroke, are the second most common cause of dementia; nearly 40 per cent of dementia diagnoses are related to stroke and cerebrovascular disease, and each stroke doubles an individual’s risk of dementia. One in six adults will undergo a stroke in their lifetime. A study called Vitality, from Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose’s Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, is looking at interventions for stroke survivors to reduce cognitive impairment as a result of a cerebrovascular event.

Stroke survivors represent a large portion of the population. According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, there are more than 400,000 Canadians living with long-term disability from stroke, a number they project will double over the next two decades. Each year, 62,000 people suffer from strokes, and 80 per cent of those who experience a stroke will survive. Eighty per cent of those who experience a stroke are over 64 years of age.

“The current standard of care for people who have had a stroke does not adequately address the cognitive symptoms of stroke; much of rehabilitation focuses on physical recovery. Yet, we know that intact cognitive processes are critical to functional independence as well as motor abilities, such as walking,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose.

“Ours is the first study to compare the benefits of an exercise regimen with cognitive and social enrichment activities after stroke; our hope is that we can find a way to improve the standard of care and prevent dementia in stroke survivors.”

The study is comprised of a randomized controlled trial comparing six months of exercise training or social and cognitive enrichment activities in individuals who have experienced a stroke within the last 12 months. While existing research has shown that both exercise and cognitive enrichment are beneficial for cognitive function, it is not clear whether individuals who have suffered a stroke would still benefit.

Dr. Liu-Ambrose has been a leader in informing our understanding of the role of exercise in brain health, with studies linking aerobic exercise and delaying or preventing cognitive decline in older adults as well as those showing the benefits of resistance training in improving brain plasticity in seniors, especially women. Her hope with the Vitality study is that the information gleaned over the past five years will inform better clinical care for stroke survivors, improving cognitive outcomes for older adults with cerebrovascular disease.

Participate in the Vitality study

“The Vitality study has been underway since 2013, and we’re hoping to recruit another 40 participants before the conclusion of the program at the end of this year,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose. For more information on the study, or to participate in the research, email Stephanie Doherty at cogmob.research@hiphealth.ca.

For information on other studies from the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, including studies on sleep quality and cognition, falls prevention, and the link between joint and brain health, visit cogmob.rehab.med.ubc.ca.