What to Know About Ventricular Tachycardia and Myotonic Dystrophy, Gilbert Gottfried's 'Long Illness'

The comedian, who died Tuesday at 67, was dealing with "a very specific, rare genetic disorder," cardiologist Dr. Jennifer Haythe tells PEOPLE

On Tuesday, Gilbert Gottfried's family shared the sad news that the comedian had died at age 67 after a "long illness."

Gottfried, who famously voiced Iago in Disney's 1992 classic Aladdin, had been dealing with recurrent ventricular tachycardia due to myotonic dystrophy type II, his longtime friend and publicist Glenn Schwartz told PEOPLE.

The two illnesses are "a very specific, rare genetic disorder," Dr. Jennifer Haythe, an associate professor of medicine and co-director of Columbia Women's Heart Center who did not treat Gottfried, tells PEOPLE. The first part of it, myotonic dystrophy type II "is a form of muscular dystrophy in which muscles become weaker over time," she says.

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"They're usually inherited and present in your younger years, your twenties and thirties, and the problem is one of the muscles it can affect is the heart."

Gilbert Gottfried
Gilbert Gottfried. Carolyn Cole/Contour/Getty

Myotonic dystrophy can lead to scarring in the heart, and arrhythmias — an irregular heartbeat. In Gottfried's case, he had ventricular tachycardia, "which is an abnormal heart rhythm where the rhythm of the heart is generated from the ventricle as opposed to from the atrium," Haythe explains.

"It's a potentially lethal rhythm because it doesn't provide good blood supply to the rest of the body."

People with the condition can be prescribed medication to keep it under control, or get a defibrillator put in — which would shock the heart and restore it to a normal rhythm any time it shifts — "to prevent sudden death" from the arrhythmias.

On a daily basis, people with ventricular tachycardia could have no symptoms at all, or have frequent feelings of palpitations. For those that need a defibrillator, they may get shocked often, "which can be very stressful for people," Haythe says.

"It creates a lot of anxiety. They could have post traumatic stress disorder. But it really depends on the person and the cause of their ventricular tachycardia."

And the health outcomes also vary from person to person depending on the severity of their case. Some can get it under control with medication or an ablation — a procedure where doctors freeze or burn the inside of the heart to restore a normal heart rhythm — but others can't, and are at high risk for life-ending cardiac arrest.

Gilbert Gottfried
Gilbert Gottfried.

The chance of having recurrent ventricular tachycardia due to myotonic dystrophy type II, though, is exceedingly rare, Haythe says.

"This isn't a scenario where people should be worried that they may have this undiagnosed, although it's certainly possible," she says. "But this is a very specific, rare genetic disorder that he had that is associated with these arrhythmias."

And ventricular tachycardias can be caused by other health problems that doctors would be able to diagnose and identify.

"Gottfried's case is definitely not a reason for people to become suddenly alarmed, but if someone's been experiencing palpitations that feel weird or if they've experienced fainting or feeling lightheaded with exercise, they should go see their doctor and be checked out," Haythe says.

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