Grace Dierssen was a high-powered executive in a software development firm. Personal health came only second to her after family and career. So one morning when she developed sudden chest pains, exhaustion, and breathing difficulties, she attributed it to work stress and went about her chores. It's only when the pain got unbearable that she got herself admitted and found that she had suffered a heart attack.

Dierssen is not a solitary example. There are hundreds of women who develop similar heart attack symptoms as men but put off seeking medical help, consequently endangering their lives. This was the result of a study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, where researchers used Dierssen as an example.

"The main danger is that when someone comes to the hospital with a more severe or advanced stage of heart disease, there are simply fewer treatment options available," said lead author Dr. Catherine Kreatsoulas in a statement.

In order to find out how people. according to their gender, perceive symptoms related to their heart and how soon they seek medical help, the study interviewed people with suspected coronary artery disease, just prior to undergoing their first coronary angiogram test. The study was split in two parts. In the first study, patients were asked about their experience of angina and their decision to seek medical help. In the second phase, a new group of patients were enrolled and their decisions to seek medical care were correlated to their gender.

Not all people immediately seek medical help upon experiencing symptoms of angina, such as pressure, tightness, or a burning feeling, which may eventually lead to cardiac arrest. So the researchers coined the term "symptomatic tipping point," which they described as the transitional period someone goes through between experiencing cardiac symptoms and getting medical attention.

They identified six transitional stages that men responded faster to: a period of uncertainty where the symptoms were thought to be due to some other conditions, denial or dismissal of symptoms, asking opinion of a friend or family member, recognition of severity of symptoms with feelings of defeat, seeking medical attention, and finally acceptance. The researchers found that women were one and half times more likely than men to wait for severe symptoms to appear before seeking medical attention.

While the initial symptoms may be dismissed by both men and women as indigestion or a pulled muscle, women delay seeking help even if they notice slight improvements. There are several reasons why this happens, according to the study. Foremost among them is the misconception that only men get heart attacks. This is completely untrue as cardiovascular diseases are a leading cause of death in women.

Secondly, a woman’s role as the primary caregiver of her family and children often causes her to put her health issues on the back burner. Another myth is that men and women experience different symptoms of heart problems. The study sates that heart attack symptoms are the same for all, and people experiencing angina for more than a few minutes should seek immediate emergency medical help.

"Being smoke-free, physically active, following a healthy diet, and controlling blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels are key in preventing premature heart disease,” said Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Dr. Beth Abramson, author of Heart Health for Canadians.

Source: Kreatsoulas C, et al. Canadian Cardiovascular Congress. 2014.