Basketball Legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Mental Strength of Dealing with a Heart Diagnosis

Updated: Oct. 05, 2023

The six-time NBA champion, now 76, shares that he ignored the warning signs: "You've got to go do something about it right away so that the threats are reduced," he told us.

For most of his life, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the epitome of health as one of the greatest basketball players in history. Now, at age 76, he hopes to keep things that way. When Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed recently with atrial fibrillation—a heart condition often called “AFib” that can increase someone’s chance of a stroke by five times—he decided to speak up and help others.

The humanitarian, prolific author of an impressive 17 books, and former NBA MVP, spoke with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest about how he initially ignored the symptoms of AFib and how he’s used flexibility—in the literal sense!—as one preferred way to stay well.

What Are Heart Arrhythmias? Symptoms, Risk, and Treatments for Irregular Heartbeats

The Healthy @Readers Digest: A lot of people know you as an NBA legend, but you’ve also become a great health advocate over the years. You’ve been vocal in raising awareness for cancer research, and this year you decided to speak about your recent atrial fibrillation diagnosis. How were you diagnosed, and how has this impacted your life?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I was diagnosed after I had a number of incidents of inability to feel strong. I was dealing with fatigue. I was having sessions of lightheadedness and inability to have cardiovascular endurance. It was something that came and went, and I mistakenly thought it was something I could ignore because it was not anything serious and it would go away, but it doesn’t go away.

So I would suggest to anyone who’s dealing with symptoms like that to visit, and they can find out if their symptoms are the same as AFib. And if they are, they need to go see a doctor and deal with it and make sure that they don’t succumb to some of the problems of AFib. And I would remind people that AFib increases your chances of having a stroke by a factor of five. You’re five times more likely to have a stroke if you have AFib. So take it seriously if you’re having the symptoms and go to a doctor and make sure that you check it out.

This Zero-Calorie Sweetener Was Just Linked to Heart Attack and Stroke

The Healthy: What resources did you find personally helpful? Was there anybody in your life you were able to take advice from, and what did you find personally helpful?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I was at a baseball game and was having a hard time getting enough air. And I was in a passageway with the trophy case. I had to lean up against the trophy case just to rest because I was that much out of breath. And I still was insisting to myself that this is something that would go away. But my business manager, she said, “No, we’re going to the hospital.” She took me to the hospital and that’s exactly when I was diagnosed with AFib.

The Healthy: Dealing with any illness can be extremely stressful. Being such an iconic athlete, how did that affect you mentally?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Well, you can’t get into the ins and outs of how it’s affecting you. You have to deal with how it’s affecting you physically because it can end your life physically if you have a stroke and pass away. So you can’t think about that. You’ve got to go do something about it right away so that the threats are reduced and you can get back to your natural state of health.

Ice-T Opens Up About His Health, the Drink He Gave Up for Good, and His Unexpected Deal with Dr. Dre

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots over Greg Kite #50 of the Boston Celtics during the 1987 NBA Basketball Finals at the Boston GardenFocus On Sport/getty images
A vintage image of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33 of the Los Angeles Lakers shooting over Greg Kite #50 of the Boston Celtics during the 1987 NBA Basketball Finals at the Boston Garden.

The Healthy: We talk a lot about diet and fitness at The Healthy. How has your diet and fitness evolved from when you were a professional athlete to now in your seventies?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Well right after I retired I gained a whole lot of weight because I was eating at the same rate when I was playing and I didn’t need all of the calories. I gained a whole lot of weight and people didn’t expect that from me. I had always been the tall skinny guy.

But once I realized what was going on, I got my weight back down to a reasonable area and made sure I didn’t eat so much. When you play professional basketball you burn up a whole lot of calories and you have to deal with that in how you train and how you eat. So there’s a difference when you make the transition. I was lucky enough to get the right advice and stick with it, and I’m OK now.

The Healthy: I relate to that not as a professional athlete, but as somebody who was pregnant and then needed to adjust what I was eating afterwards. What did you have to adjust?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I just cut down on my food intake. I cut back a little bit. Well, I cut back a good amount, but not starving myself. But I didn’t need to eat so much and I started working out regularly and my body got back to where it belonged. It’s kind of hard to imagine seeing someone my height as a fatso.

This Kind of Exercise Can Reduce Men’s Cancer Risk, Says New Study

The Healthy: It’s good to have a sense of humor about health! What workouts do you do now for enjoyment?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Well, I do some cardiovascular and I stretch and just do a little bit of strength training and a lot of stretching. That seems to work.

The Healthy: You’re known for being one of the greatest players in the game, but also one of the most graceful basketball players in the game. How has that translated to things outside of basketball?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Yoga really helped me a lot because it enabled me to understand what was happening with my flexibility and how that affected my ability to run up and down the court. I did some Ashtanga and I did some of what they call hot yoga. Yoga is a very good discipline for people. Three or four days a week of yoga will absolutely keep you in good shape and lets you know what your health is all about.