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Half of UK heart attack patients delay seeking medical help

Half of people suffering a heart attack (50%) may be putting their life and future recovery in danger by delaying seeking medical help for their symptoms for more than an hour,1 according to a new survey of British Heart Foundation (BHF) supporters.

The survey of heart attack survivors showed that over 80% initially failed to realise that they may be having a heart attack, with more than one in three mistaking their symptoms for indigestion (35%). Worryingly, nearly two thirds (59%) of those polled still didn’t realise that they might be having a heart attack at the point they finally sought medical help for their symptoms.

The heart charity is warning that as a nation we’re underestimating the life-threatening consequences of a heart attack, despite coronary heart disease – the main cause of heart attacks – remaining the UK’s single biggest killer. The BHF is urging people to be more aware of the signs of a heart attack and says far more research is needed to improve ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating heart attacks.

Someone suffers a heart attack approximately every three minutes in the UK.2 A heart attack is caused when a blood clot forms in a narrowed coronary artery, cutting off the blood supply to the heart muscle. Research has shown that nearly half of potentially salvageable heart muscle is lost within one hour of the coronary artery being blocked.3 However, today’s figures show that only approximately one in four heart attack survivors surveyed (26%) managed to get treatment within this timeframe, meaning that the majority put their lives and future recovery at risk.

Despite the common perception that a heart attack is something that happens quickly with someone clutching their chest and keeling over, the survey results showed that more than 90% of those surveyed remained conscious throughout. Around one in 10 (13%) of those asked collapsed during their heart attack.

Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive at the British Heart Foundation, said: “It’s extremely alarming that the majority of people who suffer heart attacks mistake their symptoms for something less serious and delay getting medical help. Every second counts when someone has a heart attack. The sooner people recognise their symptoms and call 999, the better their chance of recovery.”

“Research advances mean seven out of ten people now survive a heart attack. But most heart attacks occur without warning and we have no way of predicting when they will strike. We need to accelerate research into improving our understanding of the furring of the arteries that causes heart attacks and develop better ways of preventing them. Also, minor heart attacks which are often a prelude to a much more serious one, can be difficult to diagnose. We therefore need more effective ways of diagnosing them so people at risk get the life saving treatment they need.”

The BHF currently funds £29 million of research in to finding new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat heart attacks. The charity has recently funded a project at Kings College London (KCL) investigating a more effective way of diagnosing heart attacks.

Under current guidelines, doctors in the emergency department who suspect someone has had a heart attack carry out a blood test for a protein called troponin which leaks from the heart when it’s damaged. However, it takes time for troponin levels to rise to to detectible levels in the blood, which means diagnosis can be considerably delayed.

Professor Mike Marber and the team at Kings are studying another protein that leaks from the heart after damage called cardiac myosin binding protein C (MyC). The team is now investigating if measuring MyC is a quicker and more effective way of diagnosing a heart attack.

Professor Marber said: “It is essential to know whether someone with chest pain has suffered damage to their heart. We’re investigating whether levels of MyC in the blood provide a quicker and more reliable indication of a heart attack than troponin. MyC may also be less likely to be detected because of chronic disease, preventing a false diagnosis of a heart attack. The research could lead to a better blood test for heart attack so people can receive the right treatment, more quickly, improving their chances of recovery.”

Melanie Mully, 43 from Bishop Stortford, had a heart attack when she was just 38: “It was the week before I was due to get married and my mind was more on place cards and where I was going to put everybody.

“The day it happened I was queuing to pay for a present when I started to feel all hot and sweaty. There was a pain in my arm and I had indigestion. I didn’t think anything of it as I’d had bouts throughout my recent pregnancy. The pain went on throughout the day, but I didn’t want to go through the hassle of sitting in a waiting room with a baby. Eventually that evening my heart attack led to a cardiac arrest and my heart stopped. Thankfully the paramedics arrived quickly and were able to resuscitate me.

“I wasn’t overweight and I had never smoked, it didn’t occur to me that this was something that could happen. Even though I had no idea what was happening at the time, it’s still something that has a huge impact on my life. It’s taken a couple of years, a lot of hard work and counselling to get my life back on track.”