When the legendary entertainer was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, he was worried he’d have a heart attack. Here, he shares his strategies for leading an active and healthy life despite the condition.
In a dark studio on a sweltering September afternoon in New York City, Barry Manilow, world famous for his songs about matters of the heart, is teaching me about the heart itself. “There are two parts—the atria and the ventricles,” he explains. “And they’ve got to be in rhythm.”
Ironically, Barry—who knows more about rhythm than most of us—has a condition called atrial fibrillation (AFib), the most common type of irregular heartbeat. It occurs when the heart’s electrical system—which controls the rate and rhythm of heartbeats—malfunctions. Normally, an electrical signal spreads from the two upper chambers of the heart (the atria) to the bottom chambers (the ventricles) and causes the heart to contract and pump blood. With AFib, the two chambers don’t beat in a coordinated way, resulting in a fast and irregular heart rhythm.
“It felt like a flounder was jumping around in my chest”
Barry first noticed something was wrong about 15 years ago, when he was driving home. “It felt like a flounder was jumping around in my chest,” he recalls. It continued through the night, so he called his doctor the next day. “He knew exactly what was wrong,” says Barry, who was given medication to help control his heart rate. “Sure enough, it calmed down.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. About six months later, Barry experienced symptoms again. “My heart was really going nuts,” he recalls. His doctor recommended an electrical cardioversion—in which doctors shock your heart back into a normal rhythm—which was successful.
“If you don’t see a doctor, you’re playing with fire”
Although Barry—who exercises regularly and eats a healthy diet—hasn’t made any lifestyle changes to accommodate his AFib, he admits that the condition forces him to slow down from time to time. Still, he’s grateful that he’s able to perform and travel. “People who get this thing can still live a decent life,” he points out. “But I don’t think I could live a life like mine if I hadn’t seen my doctor.”
Barry, who prefers not to discuss his personal life, says he decided to go public with his condition because, “Maybe I can encourage someone who’s been down the same road to take care of themselves,” he says. “Having your heart skip a beat might seem benign, but if you don’t go to your doctor, you’re playing with fire.” Indeed, people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than those without the condition, and they’re at increased risk of heart failure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Today, Barry pays close attention to his heart. He takes medication daily, and when he develops signs of AFib, his doctor tells him to increase the dose. “Most of the time, I just ride it out,” he says. Occasionally, if his symptoms last for a few days, his doctor sends him to the hospital to be cardioverted.
“This condition doesn’t care about my shows,” he says. “It comes when it wants to, and I’ve got to be prepared for it.” But Barry doesn’t want any sympathy. He quickly says, “Don’t feel sorry for me, because I’m in great shape. I take care of myself.”
Here, Barry—and experts—offer their tips for coping with and preventing AFib:
If you have any symptoms of AFib, call your doctor. Left untreated, the condition can cause the heart’s size and shape to change, a process called remodeling. When this occurs, the heart becomes less efficient at pumping blood. AFib episodes may last longer or become permanent.
Be active. “I treat myself like an athlete,” says Barry. “I work out three times a week, lifting free weights.” Barry has noticed that his AFib symptoms often kick in when he’s not active.
Get treated for conditions that are linked to AFib, such as high blood pressure and hyperthyroidism.
Eat a healthy diet. “I don’t eat red meat,” says Barry. “I eat chicken, fish and loads of vegetables and fruits.”
Limit or avoid alcohol, caffeine or other stimulants that may increase your heart rate. And if you’re a smoker, quit! It’s a no-brainer for heart health.