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 actor 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).

“A lot of people just think stroke is your grandparents’ disease — that is simply not the case,” said physician Elad Levy, co-director of the stroke center at Kaleida Health. “In reality, stroke is one of the top killers in the United States.”

The numbers back that statement.

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 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.

“People need to know that strokes do not discriminate between gender, culture or age,” said Levy, who is also professor and chairman of neurosurgery at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. “I have seen strokes in young children to seniors.”

A stroke is 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.

“A lot of people just think stroke is your grandparents’ disease — that is simply not the case.”

Physician Elad Levy, co-director of the stroke center at Kaleida Health.

“A stroke can be incredibly fatal and debilitating,” added Levy. “People can die from this because anytime arteries are clogged and you are losing brain cells that can be a dire combination. If you are having a stroke, for every minute that an artery is blocked you lose two million brain cells. Even though we can treat people hours after a stroke, the more you wait the more brain damage you have.”

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.

“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,” said Fahed Saada, neurologist at St. Joseph’s Health in Syracuse. “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 Levy. “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.”