Background Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death and a source of chronic disability.
Objectives To assess recognition of and reaction to symptoms of heart attack and stroke, and how recognition is related to the frequency of consulting physicians and other information sources.
Design Face-to-face computer-assisted personal interviews.
Participants Representative sample of 10 228 persons in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain and UK, aged 14–98.
Main Outcome Variables Recognition of heart attack and stroke symptoms and proper reaction to symptoms.
Results Chest pain was the only heart attack symptom recognized by more than 50% of participants. Eight percent knew no symptoms. Of 14 stroke symptoms, none was recognized by more than 50% of participants; 19% could not identify any symptom. For both heart attack and stroke, Germans and Austrians recognized the largest number of symptoms. Persons in Italy, Poland, Russia and Spain knew only about half as many symptoms as in Germany or Austria. Only 51% of Europeans would call an ambulance when someone suffers a stroke, the fewest (33 and 34%) in Germany and Austria. In most countries, people who consulted their physician more frequently had no better recognition of heart attack or stroke symptoms.
Conclusions The majority of persons in nine European countries recognize few heart attack and stroke symptoms; many do not know how to react. This low level of knowledge constitutes a major health risk and likely leads to delay in treatment, contributing to the high mortality and morbidity from these diseases.