Mario Lemieux and Atrial Fibrillation

When Mario Lemieux retired from hockey in 2006 due to a heart condition, no one knew what that condition was. Recently, Lemieux went public about his experience with atrial fibrillation (AF or A-fib, a type of irregular heartbeat) in an effort to raise awareness about this serious heart ailment that affects as many as 250,000 people in Canada.

Atria fibrillation is the most common cardiac arrhythmia and, despite its prevalence, potential complications and rising incidence rates, atrial fibrillation-a treatable heart affliction, has received little attention in the past compared to other forms of heart disease.

“It is an electrical disturbance in which the upper chambers of the heart beat out of sync with the lower chambers, explains Dr. Paul Dorian, director, Division of Cardiology, St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and a professor at the University of Toronto. “Atrial fibrillation is completely unrelated to heat attacks nor is it related to hardening of the arteries, high cholesterol, smoking and stress — the things people tend to think about when they think about what causes heart disease — but it is very common.”

Mario LemieuxAge is an important risk factor for atrial fibrillation because as individuals age, changes in the heart make them more susceptible to developing AF. Although AF is more common after age 65, it can occur at younger ages as well, as in the case of Lemieux. Dr. Dorian also notes that its incidence will continue to increase due to the aging population.

Atrial fibrillation can occur intermittently or may be continuously present. Some people show very clear symptoms when they have an episode while others may feel no symptoms at all. The same person can sometimes feel that his/her heart is out of rhythm, and other times not feel it. In the case of Mario, he would feel an irregular heartbeat, then the symptoms would go away, then it got to the point that his heart was beating so fast, he thought he was having a heart attack.

Symptoms of AF may include
• Tiredness or weakness
• Dizziness, light-headedness or fainting
• Chest pain, discomfort or shortness of breath (particularly with exertion or anxiety)
• Becoming easily tired after being active or exercising

Doctors recommend managing AF to reduce the risk of stroke, the burden of AF on a patient’s quality of life, to reduce the risk of being hospitalized and because of the risk of developing illnesses as a result of long-term heart weakness.

Several treatment options are available to manage or prevent the complications associated with atrial fibrillation and currently drugs are the standard treatment.

Today, after diagnosis and treatment, Lemieux is enjoying life to the fullest. “The best advice I would give to a family member or friend who has symptoms associated with atrial fibrillation would be to go see a doctor right away. The more you can find out about atrial fibrillation, the better you’ll be prepared to deal with its effects and the more you’ll be able to influence your outcome.”