Exercise Plan Cost-Effective in Post-Stroke Cognitive Rehab

A multicomponent exercise program that includes strength, aerobic, agility, and balance training exercises is cost-effective and results in improved cognition among stroke survivors, compared with a balance and tone control group, according to a new analysis.

On the other hand, a program consisting of cognitive and social enrichment activities that includes memory, brain training, and group social games entailed higher costs, compared with the balance and tone group, which included stretches, deep breathing and relaxation techniques, posture education, and core control exercises.

photo of Jennifer Davis
Dr Jennifer Davis

“Cognitive impairment is experienced in approximately one third of stroke survivors,” study author Jennifer Davis, PhD, a Canada research chair in applied health economics and assistant professor of management at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, told Medscape Medical News.

“The economic evaluation of the exercise intervention demonstrated that the multicomponent exercise program provided good value for the money when comparing costs and cognitive outcomes,” she said. However, “impacts on health-related quality of life were not observed.”

The study was published online November 30 in JAMA Network Open

Comparing Three Approaches

Despite improved care, patients with stroke often face challenges with physical function, cognitive abilities, and quality of life, the authors wrote. Among older adults, in particular, cognitive deficits remain prevalent and are associated with increased risks for dementia, mortality, and increased burdens for patients, caregivers, and health systems.

Numerous interventions have shown promise for post-stroke cognitive rehabilitation, including exercise and cognitive training, the authors wrote. Research hasn’t indicated which programs offer the most efficient or cost-effective options, however.

Davis and colleagues conducted an economic evaluation alongside the Vitality study, a three-group randomized clinical trial that examined the efficacy of improving cognitive function among patients with chronic stroke through a multicomponent exercise program, cognitive and social enrichment activities, or a control group with balance and tone activities. 

The economic evaluation team included a cost-effectiveness analysis (based on incremental cost per cognitive function change) and a cost-utility analysis (incremental cost per quality-adjusted life-year [QALY] gained). The researchers used a cost-effectiveness threshold of CAD $50,000 (Canadian dollars) per QALY for the cost-utility analysis, which was based on precedent treatment in Canada.

The clinical trial included 120 community-dwelling adults aged 55 years and older who had a stroke at least 12 months before the study. Based in the Vancouver metropolitan area, participants were randomly assigned to twice-weekly, 60-minute classes led by trained instructors for 26 weeks. The mean age was 71 years, and 62% of participants were men.

Exercise Effective 

Overall, the balance and tone control group had the lowest delivery cost at CAD $777 per person, followed by CAD $1090 per person for the exercise group and CAD $1492 per person for the cognitive and social enrichment group.

After the 6-month intervention, the mean cognitive scores were –0.192 for the exercise group, –0.184 for the cognitive and social enrichment group, and –0.171 for the balance and tone group, indicating better cognitive function across all three groups.

In the cost-effectiveness analysis, the exercise intervention was costlier but more effective than the control group, with an incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) of CAD –$8823.

In the cost-utility analysis, the exercise intervention was cost saving (less costly and more effective), compared with the control group, with an ICER of CAD –$3381 per QALY gained at the end of the intervention and an ICER of CAD –$154,198 per QALY gained at the end of the 12-month follow-up period. The cognitive and social enrichment program was more costly and more effective than the control group, with an ICER of CAD $101,687 per QALY gained at the end of the intervention and an ICER of CAD $331,306 per QALY gained at the end of the follow-up period.

In additional analyses, the exercise group had the lowest healthcare resource utilization due to lower healthcare costs for physician visits and lab tests.

“This study provides initial data that suggests multicomponent exercise may be a cost-effective solution for combating cognitive decline among stroke survivors,” said Davis.

Overall, exercise was cost-effective for improving cognitive function but not quality of life among participants. The clinical trial was powered to detect changes in cognitive function rather than quality of life, so it lacked statistical power to detect differences in quality of life, said Davis.

Exercise programs and cognitive and social enrichment programs show promise for improving cognitive function after stroke, the authors wrote, though future research should focus on optimizing cost-effectiveness and enhancing health-related quality of life.

Considering Additional Benefits

Commenting on the study for Medscape, Alan Tam, MD, a physiatrist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute’s Brain Rehabilitation Program, said, “The authors show that within the timeframe of their analysis, there is a trend to cost-effectiveness for the cognitive intervention being offered.” Tam did not participate in the research.

photo of Alan Tam
Dr Alan Tam

“However, the finding is not robust, as less than 50% of their simulations would meet their acceptability level they have defined,” he said. “Given that most of the cost of the intervention is up front, but the benefits are likely lifelong, potentially taking the 12-month analysis to a lifetime analysis would show more significant findings.”

Tam researches factors associated with brain injury rehabilitation and has explored the cost-effectiveness of a high-intensity outpatient stroke rehabilitation program.

“Presenting this type of work is important,” he said. “While there are interventions that do not meet our definition of statistical significance, especially in the rehabilitation world, there can still be a benefit for patients and health systems.”

The primary study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Jack Brown and Family Alzheimer Research Foundation Society. Davis reported receiving grants from the CIHR and Michael Smith Health Research BC during the conduct of the study. Tam reported no relevant financial relationships.

Carolyn Crist is a health and medical journalist who reports on the latest studies for Medscape, MDedge, and WebMD.

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