People who are good with numbers are more likely to get medical help for a heart attack when it matters most — as soon as possible. Pixabay, public domain

Is being a nerd better for your health? A new study suggests yes, revealing a surprising factor that predicts your chances of surviving a heart attack.

Research in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine has linked a person’s ability to understand and use number concepts to their risk of dying from a heart attack: People who are more skilled with numbers are more likely to seek help for their symptoms early, improving their chances of survival.

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But why would math have anything to do with that? Numeracy, a person’s number ability, is “a factor closely related to general decision-making skill and risk literacy,” the study explains.

People who can understand probability “also spend more time thinking about their own reasoning and feelings,” the University of Oklahoma said in a statement about the research. That means they are putting more information into their decision. To compound the problem for those who are math-averse, “patients with lower numeracy tend to have more negative perceptions of health.”

And based upon a survey of more than 100 people who had recently survived an acute coronary syndrome, the study concludes, “numeracy may be one of the largest decision-delay risk factors.”

Acute coronary syndrome refers to a number of conditions that involve blood flow to the heart becoming blocked, and a heart attack is an example of one of those conditions, according to the American Heart Association. Symptoms of that blocked blood flow could include chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, dizziness, and pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.

When someone experiences such symptoms but delays getting medical attention, they risk “death and major disability,” the study says. The questionnaire asked about other potential factors, like depression and the severity of symptoms, but “independent of the influence of all other assessed factors, a patient with high (vs. low) numeracy was about four times more likely to seek medical attention within the critical first hour after symptom onset.” Those patients also had less heart damage than their counterparts who are not as good with numbers and who waited longer to get medical help.

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"We have better insights as to why people do not go to the hospitals, so now we have to find a way to empower these people,” researchers Edward Cokely said in the university statement.

The study suggests using “brief numeracy assessments” to determine how likely a patient is to seek help for a heart attack.

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