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Dr. Alex Jehle used an annual health fair to offer wellness tips he hoped the audience would take to heart.

Crowds packed the hallways of the Broadway Building at Providence St. Patrick Hospital on Saturday for the 12th annual Heart Expo. The event included heart-health vendors from a variety of medical fields as well as a series of lectures open to the cardiac-conscious.

Jehle is a cardiologist with the International Heart Institute of Montana, a partner program of St. Pat's.

The talks covered subjects from traditional heart disease to cutting-edge breakthroughs in heart valve replacement. Jehle, the moderator of the lectures, said another subject one of the sessions touched on was a health issue that has been getting more traction recently, the so called “broken heart syndrome.”

“We don’t really know what causes it, but it is stress that stuns the heart and creates rapid onset heart failure,” he said. “The other part about broken heart syndrome is that it doesn’t seem to discriminate as much on age or gender.”

Jehle said heart disease, while the number one cause of death in America, doesn’t always receive the amount of attention it deserves from the public.

“Often times, what we read about and hear about in the press is what’s attractive and shiny but maybe not as common,” he said.

The Heart Expo offered several low-cost health screenings including lipid and glucose blood tests, prostate-specific antigen blood draws and thyroid hormone tests, all part of a push for better preventive cardiology. Jehle said this year, more than 900 people opted to take advantage of the screenings.

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Another of the tests at the Heart Expo tested for peripheral artery disease. Dr. Ryan Mays described the condition as a “heart disease of the lower legs,” where plaque builds up in the arteries.

Mays is working on research about the disease with both the Heart Institute and the University of Montana, developing exercise treatments as well as devices to alleviate the leg pain that comes with peripheral artery disease.

The screening measured the blood pressure in the leg of a patient, then in their arm. In a healthy person, the pressure in the feet is higher. With peripheral artery disease, it will be lower. Mays said smoking is the top risk factor for developing peripheral artery disease.

“It leads to poor walking ability, and a crushing pain, aching and cramping in the lower limbs, especially during physical activity,” Mays said.

The problem is that the best treatment for the disease is more physical activity. Mays is currently working to develop better exercise guidelines for people with peripheral artery disease, to fill in for supervised exercise programs, which are expensive and inconvenient.

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In a room off the main hallway of vendors and information tables, Marty Merwin, a cardiac sonographer at St. Pat's, stood in front of a large computer monitor. On the screen was a three-dimensional representation of a human heart, being generated in real time as a demonstration of the hospitals echocardiogram machines.

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“We can look at the structure and function of the muscles, the valves and the chambers. Using computer-added color, we can see the blood flow patterns,” Merwin said.

While many echocardiograms are scanned non-invasively through the chest, Merwin said newer probes can be inserted down the throat and positioned behind the heart to give an even clearer picture of the organ.

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Jim Jaques, a respiratory therapist with the St. Patrick-affiliated Partners in Home Care, set up a table focusing on solutions to a common problem, sleep apnea.

“You breathe fine when you’re standing here, but lay down and your body closes up the airway,” he said.

A good night's rest might not seem to be tied with heart health, but Jaques said apnea at night has a profound connection to our well being during the day. Sleep apnea can close up the breathing passage as often as 150 times per hour during the night.

“Every time that happens, your body has a shot of adrenaline, which causes blood pressure to rise and the heart to beat faster,” Jaques said.

Because people with advanced apnea problems don’t fall into deep sleep at night, the heart doesn’t settle back down. Jaques’ table featured a variety of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP, masks and machines that help patients breathe better when asleep.

“The result is more energy the next day and a heart that doesn't have to work as hard around the clock,” he said.

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