For those who have survived a cardiac arrest, a long and winding road of rehabilitation lies ahead. Emerging research provides some guideposts on what survivors may expect during the recovery process regarding regaining function, independence, and quality of life.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
A recent study published in JAMA Neurology offered a glimmer of hope for cardiac arrest survivors. The study followed over 800 cardiac arrest survivors for six months to assess their functional recovery and well-being, investigating whether current cooling therapies affect outcomes.
The findings showed 1 in 3 survivors felt fully healed, with no lingering physical or mental symptoms at six months post-arrest. While the road is often arduous, this provides hope that significant recovery is possible for many with time, dedication, and support.
However, the news was not universally rosy. The study also found 2 in 5 survivors had not returned to their normal activities at six months. Many still experienced limitations in resuming life roles such as work, leisure pastimes, and relationships compared to before their cardiac arrest. Recovery of independence and participation in society is frequently a gradual process.
Cognitive Impairment is Common but Often Mild
The study also assessed thinking skills and found cognitive problems extremely prevalent after cardiac arrest, affecting 3 in 5 survivors at six months. However, the deficits were generally mild.
The main difficulties were executive function (planning and decision-making), memory, and mental processing speed. But scores overall were just below the normal range, indicating modest impairment rather than severe disability for most.
So survivors should expect cognitive frustrations like forgetfulness, mental fogginess, and slowed thinking speed – but take heart that profound impairment is less likely. Patience and self-compassion are vital, as the brain can take many months to heal after cardiac arrest trauma.
Age Influences Expectations and Recovery
Interestingly, the study showed younger survivors (<65 years*) reported more limitations in resuming normal life responsibilities than older survivors. The reasons are uncertain but possibly reflect the higher vocational, financial, and family demands placed on younger cardiac arrest survivors.
This highlights the importance of judging recovery against our own pre-arrest level of functioning rather than comparing ourselves to others. Expectations for the speed and extent of recovery may need adjusting based on age and life responsibilities.
Regardless of age, maintaining hope, focusing forward, setting small goals, and accepting some permanent loss is critical. Comparing ourselves to our pre-arrest selves rather than others will yield the most appropriate expectations.
*Many research studies show that the average age of someone having an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) is in the low to mid-sixties
Rehab Strategies Still a Work in Progress
Cooling the body (hypothermia) was once thought to improve brain recovery after cardiac arrest. However, this and other recent research found no clear benefit of cooling over maintaining normal body temperature (normothermia).
So some uncertainty remains around optimal rehabilitation strategies after cardiac arrest. More research on long-term functional and cognitive recovery is underway, hopefully providing more definitive answers.
For now, keeping a positive mindset, being patient with the pace of healing, and utilising all available support is important. However lengthy and non-linear the path to recovery may be. With time, dedication, and support, many survivors find a quality of life worth living on the other side.
After our first meet-up in February 2015, I realised I was not alone. It was the first time since my cardiac arrest the previous year that I had spoken face-to-face with someone who had experienced what I had. This was also true for my wife, who also happened to be my lifesaver. From that meet-up, the idea of SCA UK was born. Since then, we have achieved a considerable amount, primarily providing information, resources and support to others in a similar situation but also raising the profile of survivorship and the need for better post-discharge care. We are starting to get traction in this, and with the formation of the charity, I genuinely believe we have a bright future ahead and will make a significant difference in the lives of many who join our ranks.