Stroke: Death of TV Actor Confirms Trend

More young people are dying as a result of strokes, according to data

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

The news of TV star Luke Perry’s death hit people hard for many reasons. Some were his long-time fans. Others were just shocked about the speed in which he went from being hospitalized to being dead. Finally, many people just couldn’t believe that someone could die of stroke, especially someone in their 50s (he was 52 when he died).

Stroke is the second most common cause of death worldwide, according to the American Stroke Association and there are an estimated 17 million strokes worldwide each year.

“Stroke cases are extremely important and it is not an issue that can be ignored,” said Fahed Saada, a neurologist at St. Joseph’s Health in Syracuse. “While stroke does happen more in the elderly, it can happen to anyone.”

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. killing 140,000 people a year. It is also the leading cause of disability among Americans, as it can leave survivors paralyzed or unable to communicate.

A stroke happens when a blood vessel that brings oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot, which is called an ischemic stroke, or it ruptures, a hemorrhagic stroke. That cuts off the vital blood and oxygen flow to that part of the brain. This kills brain cells, which can kill a person or severely debilitate them.

“Even though we have billions of neurons, you are losing millions for every minute you are suffering a stroke,” said Saada. “There are long term effects such as memory loss and losing cognitive skills. That is why time matters some much.”

Perry was slightly young for a stroke victim, as 66 percent of those who suffer from such an attack are 65 or older, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

But strokes, which are behind about 5 percent of U.S. deaths annually, are on the rise among those between 25 and 44. Perry’s father died in his mid-30s from a heart attack.

Saada stresses that people need to keep their bodies healthy or they could be prime candidates for strokes.

“If you have any risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or smoking, you have to beware. Patients with these issues have a higher likelihood of stroke,” added Saada. “That is why you have to watch for as many warning signs as possible.”

The American Stroke Association suggests learning the F.A.S.T warning signs that someone is having a stroke, including:

• Face drooping: Does one side of the face droop, or does it feel numb? Ask the person to smile; is the smile uneven or lopsided?

• Arm weakness: Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one drive downward?

• Speech: Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence.

• Time to call 911: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get them to the hospital ASAP. The faster a person is treated, the more likely they are to recover.

Additional symptoms can include sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body, severe headache, sudden confusion or trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

“The medical community needs to do a better job at educating our society on the dangers of stroke,” said physician Elad Levy, professor and chairman of neurosurgery at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. “The brain is such a complex organ. And we need to do a better job at educating people that while you can’t modify your genes or family history, you can exercise more which keeps the blood flow pumping through your body. People who have high blood pressure, cholesterol and other weight issues are more susceptible. Even though we live in western New York where it can be cold, we have to keep moving.”

Saada added that the medical community must also reach out to more primary care physicians and neurosurgeon experts and remind them to tell patients how their risk factors can lead to bad outcomes.

Levy also added that it is important to keep this topic on the forefront of people’s minds.

“People need to know that strokes do not discriminate between gender, culture or age,” said Levy. “I have seen strokes in young children to seniors.”