Lives could be lost unnecessarily due to a massive lack of public awareness about heart failure, an international survey has found.
Heart failure can be treated with drugs
Almost 90% of nearly 8,000 people surveyed in nine European countries had heard of heart failure.
But just 3% could identify the condition from a description of typical symptoms - such as breathlessness, tiredness and swollen ankles.
The research is published in the European Heart Journal.
Heart failure affects an estimated 14 million Europeans and the lifetime risk of developing the condition is one in five.
But the survey, carried out by SHAPE (Study of Heart failure Awareness and Perception in Europe), found that people were much more likely to be able to correctly identify the symptoms of a mini stroke, or angina.
It also revealed widespread misconceptions about heart failure. For instance, over two-thirds mistakenly thought heart failure patients live longer than patients with cancer and HIV.
In fact, 40% of heart failure patients die within a year of their first admission to hospital.
A third also wrongly thought heart failure was a normal consequence of getting older.
And nearly a third thought modern drugs could not prevent the condition.
In fact, drugs such as ACE inhibitors and beta blockers can be very effective - but are under-prescribed.
Lead researcher Professor Willem Remme, of the Sticares Cardiovascular Research Institute in the Netherlands, said: "The low awareness of heart failure that we found is shocking and is putting lives at risk.
"It has serious implications for individuals and for public health throughout Europe.
HEART FAILURE SYMPTOMS
"If the public don't understand how common and how life-threatening this condition is then they are not likely to seek medical help early, and they are also unlikely to demand appropriate measures from healthcare providers.
"Ignorance of the symptoms and of what can be done to prevent and treat the condition could contribute to unnecessarily poor quality of life in tens of thousands of patients and thousands of premature deaths, and is placing a heavy burden on health systems."
The researchers taking part in the SHAPE project now plan to launch an education programme aimed at doctors and the public to save lives and improve healthcare.
Professor Remme said: "We urge everyone to educate themselves about early signs that may mean risk of heart failure and see your doctor in good time.
"A tremendous amount can now be done with modern drugs and devices, together with lifestyle changes, to prevent the condition, to improve the quality of life for those who have heart failure and to reduce the need for costly hospital admission."
Belinda Linden, of the British Heart Foundation, said: "An estimated 900,000 people are currently living with heart failure in the UK and it's a figure which, if trends continue, is set to climb as the population ages.
"The results of this international survey echo findings from a recent BHF campaign which revealed the need for more information and support for people dealing with this debilitating condition."
The survey was carried out in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden.