Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 75, Opens Up About Health After He ‘Collapsed’ Due to AFib
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 75, sits down with Prevention to share his atrial fibrillation diagnosis and experience.
Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a common heart condition that causes irregular heartbeat.
Abdul-Jabbar and a cardiologist explain why it’s important to address AFib symptoms early.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the best players to ever touch a basketball. In his retirement, he has used his battle with prostate cancer and experience undergoing coronary bypass surgery to raise awareness. Now, the 75-year-old is giving fans a health update, telling Prevention about being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib), a heart condition.
The 75-year-old recalls noticing the first signs that something was off with his health a few years ago. “My physical symptoms began while I was traveling in Europe with my son, and I noticed I couldn’t keep up with him…I was short of breath, sometimes I had irregular heartbeats, and I just didn’t feel good,” he says. He also notes that he often felt lightheaded.
Because the basketball legend’s symptoms did not persist, he dismissed them. “I thought ‘I’ve been a great athlete my whole life by taking care of myself,’—it must not be anything.” But he says the symptoms came back in time.
AFib is a common heart condition. In 2023, more than 9 million people will have AFib, says Andrea Russo, M.D., cardiologist and director of research at Cooper Heart Institute. “We project that by 2030, it’ll be over 12 million.”
AFib occurs when the upper chambers of the heart beat rapidly and irregularly, Dr. Russo says. “Because of the irregular heartbeat, people with AFib don’t have a normal contraction and the blood doesn’t get out as well. You can form clots in the heart and those clots can cause strokes.”
According to Dr. Russo, people can often experience AFib symptoms for a while before receiving a diagnosis.“People can have the sensation of an irregular heartbeat, or palpitations, heart racing, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, or inability to catch your breath, fatigue, or have some lightheadedness,” she explains. But, she notes that while these symptoms can occur with AFib, they can be indicators of other conditions as well. “So we don’t know for sure what it is until you see your healthcare provider,” she says.
Abdul-Jabbar says that his symptoms would come and go over a period of time, but the impact of his condition didn’t truly hit him until he attended a baseball game. “I found that the sun just sucked all the life out of me, I was sweating, again I was short of breath, I felt light-headed and I really didn’t feel like things were going right for me,” he says. When he tried to stand up, he says “I almost passed out.” Then, on the way to his car, he remembers collapsing and almost falling against the Dodgers trophy display.
“I was told that I needed to go to the hospital, and the doctors there told me I had atrial fibrillation, and that I had to deal with it.” (Dr. Russo notes that your healthcare provider won’t know for sure that you have atrial fibrillation until they conduct an electrocardiogram or an ECG.)
Upon hearing his diagnosis, Abdul-Jabbar says he immediately felt denial. “I was incredulous, namely…I just couldn’t believe that someone who had lived the life that I’d led, exercise and a good diet all the time, I thought that should last me for the rest of my life, but that’s not the case.”
He remembers that after receiving his diagnosis, one statistic specifically struck him. “The thing that I found out at the hospital that I hadn’t known was that AFb will give you a five-times increase in the probability that you will have a stroke.” That’s when the basketball star learned that the condition could be life-threatening, “And if you don’t deal with it, you could have some serious problems.”
His diagnosis ultimately led him to partner with NoTimeToWait.com, which is a unique awareness program that directs you to a doctor to find out what’s going on with your specific symptoms, says Abdul-Jabbar. “AFib awareness really requires that people pay attention to what’s happening with their body.” So if you’re experiencing irregular heartbeats or dizziness, or you’re feeling lightheaded on a regular basis, it’s probably something happening, he says.
“When the doctor first told me that I had AFib, that I had to start doing certain things differently, I didn’t want to believe him,” he says. “I just felt that it was something that was going to go away, and that my lifetime of athletic effort would help me past this point…But, I’m just like anybody else, and I need to treat it the right way.” If you go and get it treated the right way, you have every chance of not having to be held back by it, he says.
As far as how his diagnosis has changed his day-to-day life, Abdul-Jabbar says that he has to be vigilant about eating healthy, drinking more water, and taking his meds, among staying on top of his condition. “If I can do that, I can maintain my healthy lifestyle.”
There are a few ways in which atrial fibrillation can be treated, per Mayo Clinic, which include medications, therapy to reset the heart rhythm (cardioversion), and/or surgery or catheter procedures.
As for prevention, well, that’s a different matter. It’s hard to say that AFib can be prevented, “but what we know we can...reduce the amount/burden of AFib, so that we can make people feel better. The whole goal is to have a healthy, normal lifestyle,” says Dr. Russo.
To prevent or reduce the frequency of atrial fibrillation, Dr. Russo recommends limiting alcohol intake, smoking, or substance usage, and staying healthy overall by maintaining healthy blood pressure, managing blood sugar levels if you are diabetic, and getting regular exercise.
“The bottom line is that if you feel any of these symptoms, if you’re having an irregular heartbeat, if you’re having heart racing, if you’re having shortness of breath, see a healthcare professional, talk to your doctor about your symptoms, that is the best step to take,” Dr. Russo says.
As far as next steps for the basketball legend, Abdul-Jabbar says that he has been able to manage his symptoms and hasn’t had any other issues since receiving his AFib diagnosis, “and I hope to keep it that way,” he says.
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