Health Team

NBA icon West tries to raise awareness for heart condition

Posted April 21, 2010

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— Jerry West was the prototypical NBA player – so much so that his profile was used to create the league’s logo.

“I was given a gift (and) saw the game in slow motion. You see things differently. Your mind's wired differently,” West said Wednesday during a visit to Raleigh.

What West didn’t know then was that his heart was wired differently, as well. He suffers from atrial fibrillation – which means his heart can periodically go out of rhythm. The upper two chambers quiver instead of beat effectively, so the blood may pool and clot, increasing the risk of a stroke.

West talks about heart condition West talks about heart condition

West said he often suspected something was wrong.

“My heart would just be pounding and you're saying to yourself ‘This is just not like normal,’” he said.

West wasn’t diagnosed with the condition until he was 42, and he wasn’t placed on medication for it until he was 50.

Over the years, West has been hospitalized twice for severe exhaustion.

West, who retired as general manager of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies in 2007, said at 71 he finally has his condition under control, but things like stress, caffeine or alcohol can trigger an irregular beat.

West was in Raleigh speaking to state legislators on behalf of the organization AF Stat, which hopes to elevate atrial fibrillation on state and national health care agendas.

“I was reluctant to talk about it, but it's probably one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I feel like maybe somebody might pay attention,” West said.

Doctors say the risk of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age. Many people develop it as a result of other risk factors, like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, obesity, diabetes – none of which West had. The risk increases with age.

Once diagnosed, medications can be used to control it. There are also surgical and catheter-based options available to control the most severe cases.


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