Opinion: research suggests that exercise will create greater outcomes for memory and attention in stroke survivors

A stroke occurs when the brain doesn't get enough of the blood and oxygen it needs to function. This could be due to a clot blocking the artery or the cause of a bleed from a burst blood vessel. All strokes are not the same and recovery can look very different for each person. Stroke can cause a wide range of problems and can affect speech, movement and our ability to process and remember information. For some, the effects of stroke are short term, while others may find themselves left with more severe long-term difficulties. 

When we think of stroke, our mind automatically gravitates towards the physical impairments that stroke leaves behind, such as paralysis, difficulty walking or problems with speech. It s easy to overlook or be unaware of cognitive difficulties that are common following a stroke. These impairments are hidden, but they are very much real for the individual. 

When a stroke happens, some of cells in our brain die and others are left damaged. Those brain cells that die will never be able to recover, but other areas of our brain are able to compensate for the damage. However, we need to train them. In other words, our brains are plastic, meaning they can adapt to our new circumstances, which is known as neuroplasticity.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, consultant stroke physician Professor Rónán Collins on how to reduce stroke deaths

We are constantly being bombarded with huge amounts of information from our environment, and our brains need to be able to process, understand and store all of this information (what is known as "cognition"). While our brains are normally very good at this, it may be more difficult for us to complete tasks that were once straightforward to us if our cognition is affected. 

Take learning to drive as an example. This is a complex task that requires cognitive, motor and functional ability. When we learn to drive, our brain builds connections between neurons to make sense of the steps needed to drive safely on the road. But if these connections are broken, it's more difficult for us to interpret and respond quickly to the constantly changing driving environment. 

After stroke, the person’s ability to drive may be severely affected both physically and cognitively. They may have difficulty concentrating on the road for a long period of time, their perception of distance may be different, or they may not be able to make speedy decisions as they did once before.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Carole Coleman reports on calls for government to bring back a public health campaign that ended 8 years ago on recognizing signs of stroke

Exercise has many benefits for our physical health. It increases our heart rate, lowers our blood pressure, improves our physical fitness and helps us maintain a healthy weight. Exercise is also a promising treatment for cognitive difficulty, as exercise pumps oxygen to the brain which stimulates the growth of new neural connections.

Initial research in the area of exercise and cognition was carried out on animals, but research in recent years has found that aerobic exercise (cardio) in humans enhances cognitive function just like animals. Aerobic exercise also promotes cell growth and alters the size of different areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is associated with improved learning and memory function in adults. 

Stroke rehabilitation guidelines advise moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as cycling, tennis, dancing or brisk walking, though research suggests that higher intensity exercise will create greater outcomes for memory and attention. A research team from Ulster University found that response time was faster when the participants were taking part in high-intensity exercise compared to low intensity or during a rest period High intensity exercise should make you breathe a lot harder and faster than a brisk walk - you may not be able to complete a full sentence without needing to catch a breath! High intensity exercises could be jogging or running around your local park, aerobics or team sports.

READ: How to prevent strokes

READ: Can you be too young to have a stroke?

Not everyone enjoys exercise and it can be daunting for a lot of people, but you don’t have to be running miles to receive the benefits. We should be aiming for activity that quickens our heart rate and makes us breathe faster, but it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. If you can talk but not sing a song, then that’s a good sign! Trying something new, grabbing a friend to exercise with, joining a class or setting some goals could help motivate you to be more active.We should all be aiming to exercise every day because any activity is better than no activity. We all know exercise is good for our bodies, but you are also giving your brain a boost. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ