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Medical professionals answer callers' questions about heart failure

SALT LAKE CITY — Differentiating between shortness of breath caused by heart failure and respiratory problems can include taking an extensive family medical history, a physical exam and even invasive procedures to test heart function in difficult cases.

That's the answer several callers got Saturday during the monthly Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare hotline, which focused on the topic of heart failure.

Dr. Deborah Budge, a cardiologist with the heart failure prevention and treatment program at Intermountain Medical Center, told callers if extensive examination into heart-related shortness of breath turns up normal heart function, the problem likely is lung-related.

Many people called asking about heart palpitations and whether electrocardiograms, commonly known as EKGs, are a sufficient testing mechanism to determine whether they impair heart function. Budge suggested that those who experience frequent palpitations should probably wear a long-term monitoring device that records heart rhythm for an extended time.

Another caller asked about family risk of heart failure after a young athlete within the family died and they were told he had a "weak heart muscle."

"I recommended that first-degree relatives have an EKG as a screening procedure," she said. "Some of those things can be inherited, especially where the first sign shows up in a young person."

If it is primarily a heart rhythm issue, medication, an ablation or implanting a device to control heart rhythm are all possible treatments, Budge said.

Researchers have observed a growing trend of younger heart attack and heart failure patients, particularly among people who were overweight or obese as children and develop diabetes in their teen years.

About 5,100 to 5,200 patient visits were recorded at IMC's heart failure prevention and treatment program last year, Budge said, adding that sleep apnea also has been associated with heart failure and obesity in some patients.

James Neider, a cardiac nurse at IMC, also fielded callers' questions, including several about excess fluid volume associated with heart failure and how to regulate it.

Heart failure patients need regular monitoring to determine whether their medications are effective in dealing with fluid volume to keep it under control, Neider said.