It can happen anywhere, at any time - a heart stops beating.
In Europe, around 350,000 people are affected by out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) every year.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden and Skåne University Hospital led a study in collaboration with colleagues in four other European countries to investigate outcomes for patients who survive cardiac arrest in Sweden, Denmark, the UK, the Netherlands and Italy. Almost half of the 270 patients who took part in one of the largest studies ever conducted in this field found it hard to go back to their previous lives, regardless of whether they were of working age or retired.
"It is a surprisingly high proportion, we didn't believe there would be so many", says Gisela Lilja, researcher at Lund University, occupational therapist at Skåne University Hospital and lead author of the article in the scientific journal Circulation Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
In the study, patients pointed out that they experienced cognitive problems such as impaired memory, difficulties with concentration and problem solving, and restricted mobility for at least six months after their cardiac arrest. Many of them also felt tired and depressed.
"In the study, when we also compared cardiac arrest patients with those who had suffered a heart attack, the control group, the cardiac arrest patients found it harder to return to their previous lives. In one of our previous studies we showed that the cardiac arrest survivors had particularly difficult with a slower mental processing speed compared to the control subjects. Now, we have also observed that this particular difficulty does not help them in their return to working life. These patients may be able to work for short periods of time, such as a couple of hours, but they cannot manage an eight-hour working day."
Gisela Lilja considers that European healthcare is good at rehabilitating patients with brain injuries, but has missed the fact that a number of cardiac arrest patients also need rehabilitation for impaired brain function.
"Doctors on cardiology wards should be on the look-out for cognitive problems among these patients, and ensure that they get help for these impairments where necessary. They must see these patients as both heart and brain patients", explains Gisela Lilja.
"It is not so easy for the patients themselves to understand what is wrong. Some of them probably believe that it is completely normal to experience memory impairment and fatigue and that there is no support or help available to enable them to return to a higher level of participation in their everyday lives", Gisela Lilja concludes.