Steve Jagler, a 51-year-old news editor from Oak Creek, Wis., was relieved when he received a clean bill of health from his cardiologist. But his wife, Kristi, was skeptical. For a week, Jagler had been experiencing brief bouts of unexplained pressure.
"It was a dull pain that would shoot down my shoulders and then go away one to two minutes later," Jagler said, adding that the pain came daily and without warning.
After undergoing a stress test ordered by his cardiologist, Jagler and his wife went back to the clinic for the results. The doctor blamed Jagler's symptoms on indigestion. But the only way to rule out a heart problem for sure, he said, was to do a coronary angiogram: an invasive test used to check blood flow in the heart vessels.
Jagler was hesitant. But he quickly caved under pressure from his wife to undergo the test, which revealed he had heart disease so severe that he needed open-heart surgery to correct it.
Being married can have a positive effect for men who have heart attacks, according to a Canadian study. The review of 4,500 patient's records revealed that 75 percent of married men go to the hospital within six hours after experiencing heart attack symptoms, compared with 68 percent of men who were single, 69 percent who are divorced and 71 percent of widowed patients. The finding was not seen in women.
"We surmise that, in general, women may be more likely than men to take the role of caregiver and to advise their spouses to seek early medical assessment," Dr. Clare Atzema, an emergency physician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, and colleagues wrote in the report published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Dr. Gordon Ewy, a practicing cardiologist and chief of cardiology at the University of Arizona, said it's common for men with early symptoms of heart disease to come into the office solely because of the insistence of their wives.
"If you are married and have a wife taking care of you, it is more likely you will go seek care," Ewy said. "This has been known for a long time."
Dr. Noel Bairey-Merz, a practicing cardiologist and medical director at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, argues that a women's role as a caretaker is the beneficial factor when it comes to the husband's health. The assumption is that it is in women's nature to be concerned about those who are close to them.
This could also explain why it makes no difference whether a female is married when it comes to their own health, she said.
Some cardiologists believe that denial is the major reason why single men are hesitant to get treatment earlier.
"I think it is part of our survival and coping mechanism when bad things are occurring in life," said Dr. Deepak Bhatt, chief of cardiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and VA Boston Healthcare System. "They may know that it is a heart attack, but there is denial."
People often confuse early symptoms of a heart attack for something else, such as indigestion. But cardiologists urge people to listen to their bodies and to call 911 if they think they might be having a heart attack.
"People have to have a heightened sense of concern, but some degree of common sense," Bhatt said. "If it is a new symptom that is different than experienced before, lasts more than a couple of minutes, and is getting worse, it is appropriate to call 911."
Experts also stress the importance of recognizing risk factors for heart disease, such as obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and family history of heart disease. People with a high number of risk factors should have a lower threshold to get help if they experience chest pressure or shortness of breath, they said.
Two years after his close call, Jagler credits his wife for his being alive.
"She won that argument," he said, "and has won every other argument since then."