Sudden Retirement of NBA Star Puts Spotlight on ‘Irregular Heartbeat’

In a sudden announcement, Brooklyn Nets all-star center LaMarcus Aldridge, 35, announced on social media that he is retiring from the NBA after experiencing an irregular heartbeat during his final appearance with the team and calling it “one of the scariest things I’ve experienced.”

An irregular heart, or arrhythmia, refers to a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat. It means that your heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or with an irregular pattern. When the heart beats faster than normal, it is called tachycardia. When the heart beats too slowly, it is called bradycardia.

The most common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, AFib, which causes an irregular and fast heartbeat.

Many factors can affect your heart’s rhythm, such as having had a heart attack, smoking, congenital heart defects, and stress. Some substances or medicines may also cause arrhythmias. It is estimated that 12.1 million people in the U.S. will have AFib by 2030, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“For 15 years I’ve put basketball first,” Mr. Aldridge wrote on Twitter. “And now, it is time to put my health and family first.” He added that he feels better after his final game, but “what I felt with my heart that night was still one of the scariest things I’ve experienced. With that being said, I’ve made the difficult decision to retire from the NBA.”

Arrhythmias are not infrequent in athletes, said Eli Friedman, M.D., medical director of sports cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.

“They can occur in athletes just as they can in the general population,” explains Dr. Friedman. “In fact, certain kinds of atrial arrhythmias happen more frequently in men who have participated in endurance sports at high volumes for many years. Arrhythmias can make an athlete feel inefficient, tired and decrease athletic performance.”

Mr. Aldridge said he felt the irregular heartbeat during the Nets’ game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, after which his condition worsened. “The next morning, I told the team what was going on and they were great getting me to the hospital,” Aldridge wrote.

“Certain kinds of arrhythmias can be very dangerous for sport participation and can increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest,” said Dr. Friedman. “Others are not risky to one’s life, but certainly can impact athletic performance.”

Although most athletes won’t encounter irregular heartbeat issues, some cases of atrial fibrillation are known to occur more often in men “who engage in years of high volume, high intensity endurance sport versus those who do not,” adds Dr. Friedman. “The reasons why a professional athlete might develop an arrhythmia is complex and involves multiple different assessments.”

Throughout his 15-year NBA career, Mr. Aldridge was named to seven all-star teams and five all-NBA teams. He’s also just one of 25 players ever to compile more than 19,000 points and 8,000 rebounds over the course of his career.

Arrhythmias and cardiovascular conditions can happen in athletes just as they can in the general population. But symptoms of cardiovascular disease in athletes can be different, said Dr. Friedman. These include “decreased athletic performance, disproportionate or inappropriate shortness of breath, near-fainting episodes or others while still being able to compete and train at high levels.”

“For these reasons, symptomatic cardiovascular disease can be challenging to find in athletes,” he adds. “This population requires a lot of time to tease out the symptoms, specific testing — with the knowledge that cardiac testing in athletes can look a lot different than the general population — and thoughtful, individualized treatment plans.”

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