Tailored approach to stroke recovery

XiaoWei (Olivia) Du and Dr. Susan Marzolini
​​XiaoWei (Olivia) Du, (L), is first author of the study and a previous graduate student in the lab of Dr. Susan Marzolini, a scientist at UHN’s KITE Research Institute, and senior author of the study. (Photo: UHN Research Communications)

A recent study by scientists at UHN’s KITE Research Institute has highlighted the disproportionate impact of post-stroke depressive symptoms on women compared to men upon entry to cardiac rehabilitation programs.

Their findings underscore how rehabilitation programs can tailor their strategies to optimize outcomes for patients.

Cardiac rehabilitation programs have been increasingly recognized for their benefits to individuals following stroke. Participation in exercise-based rehabilitation programs has been found to reduce mortality, recurrent stroke and re-hospitalization.

These programs are also well-suited for addressing and managing post-stroke depressive symptoms (PSDS) due to their comprehensive approach offering exercise training, lifestyle modification support, psychosocial support, nutrition counselling and education, as well as pre-screening for depressive symptoms.

“PSDS is among the most common neuropsychiatric effects of stroke and has significant implications for recovery and quality of life,” says Dr. Susan Marzolini, a scientist at KITE and senior author of the study.

“It is critical to understand sex-related differences in PSDS as it can pose a greater burden on women compared to men,” adds Dr. Marzolini, who is also an associate professor in the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute and the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto.

In stroke recovery, men and women experience differences in symptom presentation, rehabilitation needs, psychological impact, coping strategies and access to health care services. PSDS may have a greater impact on women post-stroke due to greater functional impairment, fatigue and pain as well as lower quality of life experienced by women compared to men.

Understanding risk factors and sex differences in PSDS helps researchers understand how to better tailor treatment approaches that can improve stroke outcomes following cardiac rehabilitation programs.

clinician holding a patient’s hand
Women are disproportionately affected by depressive symptoms compared to men and are less likely to enroll in cardiac rehabilitation programs following stroke. It is critical to understand the sex-related differences in post-stroke depressive symptoms to tailor recovery and care strategies. (Photo: Getty Images)

Researchers analyzed data from more than 1300 stroke patients enrolled in a cardiac rehabilitation program at Toronto Rehab and found that a higher proportion of women experienced PSDS compared to men.

Their findings also revealed unique factors associated with PSDS among women and men.

The most common factor associated with PSDS in women was obesity. Additionally, a significant proportion of women aged 51 to 70 experienced PSDS, potentially influenced by menopausal transitions, caregiving demands and social factors such as marital status and living arrangements.

Interventions within cardiac rehabilitation programs targeting obesity through diet and nutrition counselling, as well as efforts to improve social connectedness, may help mitigate PSDS in women post-stroke.

On the other hand, unemployment emerged as a common factor associated with PSDS in men as well as sleep apnea and a chronic lung condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This highlighted the need for cardiac rehabilitation interventions to assist in finding employment opportunities, providing financial support resources and helping improve continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) compliance in men post-stroke.

“By recognizing the unique factors influencing PSDS in women and men, we can better tailor interventions within cardiac rehabilitation programs to alleviate the burden of post-stroke depression,” says Xiao Wei (Olivia) Du, a previous graduate student in Dr. Marzolini’s lab and first author of this study.

“By understanding and targeting the specific needs of individuals, these rehabilitation programs can play a pivotal role in promoting holistic post-stroke care and improve the outcomes for stroke survivors.”

Future research should focus on understanding the effects of cardiac rehabilitation on PSDS.

This study was supported by generous donors to UHN Foundation.

Rally for Rehab, presented by BMO, is a family-friendly fundraising event to support Toronto Rehab and help patients reclaim their independence after life-altering health events. On September 8, join us for an accessible walk and get ready to move your way to support research at Toronto Rehab.

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