Dr. Marc Siegel: Strokes and what you need to know in the wake of Luke Perry’s death

America is talking about strokes because famed “Beverly Hills 90210” actor Luke Perry died Monday of a massive stroke. His death at the young age of 52 has saddened us, but if Perry’s response to having cancerous colon polyps removed in 2015 is any indication, he would want this to be a medical teaching moment.

So here goes: Strokes are all too common in the U.S., with 795,000 people suffering from them each year according to the Centers for Disease Control, and approximately 140,000 of these patients dying.  Almost 90 percent of these strokes are ischemic, meaning that blood flow to the brain is blocked. A person can also have a bleed into the brain, which is often associated with high blood pressure. An irregular rhythm of the heart (atrial fibrillation) can also cause a blood clot to break off and travel to the brain (emboli).

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Strokes are more common as a person gets older, though more than a third occur in people under the age of 65. Common risk factors for stroke include diabetes, being overweight, high blood pressure, smoking and high cholesterol – problems that are rampant here in the U.S. and that are fairly easily treatable. A neighbor reported that Perry was having back problems, and it should be noted that being sedentary can increase a person’s risk of a stroke, though overall he appeared to be quite active. Family history can play a role, including a tendency to form clots, though here again, there is no specific knowledge of this in Perry’s case.

The key for treating a stroke is to get to the hospital and receive treatment as soon as possible.

Stroke is the number one cause of long term disability in the world, and being alert to the symptoms of stroke can help reduce or prevent this. Clot dissolvers can be used to re-open the culprit artery, especially in the first few hours after the symptoms start.

How do you know if you are having a stroke? Look for sudden onset of weakness or numbness, especially on one side of the body. You may become confused, or have difficulty speaking or have problems seeing clearly. You may suddenly lose your balance, have trouble walking, or develop a severe headache.

The key for treating a stroke is to get to the hospital and receive treatment as soon as possible.

Recovery from stroke is somewhat unpredictable, though I have learned over the course of my career to never give up prematurely. Rehabilitation and careful management of medical complications, including infections, can lead to unexpectedly positive outcomes.

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Sadly, many, like Perry, don’t make it. Millions are asking today what happened, what are the specific details of his case? The answer is we don’t know, and we are not entitled to know. He wasn’t overweight, but we don’t know what other stroke risk factors he may have had. I suspect if he were alive he would tell us.

What we do know is that a great talent is gone from the world before his time. Dylan McKay, the character he played on Beverly Hills 90210, was a loner and a teen rebel. He reminded us of a 1990s James Dean. Perry’s portrayal was haunting. Now we are haunted by his early departure from this world.

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