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Aging; Brain

Deaths of John Singleton, Luke Perry show that stroke can strike early. Know the signs.

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This article was updated on April 30, 2019.

Less than two months after "Beverly Hills 90210" heartthrob Luke Perry died of a stroke at age 52, Oscar-nominated director John Singleton was hospitalized following a massive stroke

He died April 29, 2019, at the age of 51. 

Singleton is best known for directing the 1991 drama "Boyz N the Hood." 

The deaths of these two high-profile Hollywood figures, both in their early 50s, sent shockwaves through social media and devastated their fans. Singleton and Perry both seemed too young to be gone.

But 15 percent of strokes occur in patients under age 60. Among white men ages 45 to 54, the chance of a stroke in a given year is 2.4 out of 1,000, according to the American Heart Association. The risk for black men in that age group is four times as high. 

The news of their deaths underscores the fact that people of all ages need to be able to recognize the signs of stroke. 

Strokes are caused by a sudden blockage of arteries to the brain, and they are often related to diseases such as atherosclerosis (cholesterol buildup), which worsen with age. Therefore, when a young, seemingly healthy person has a stroke, it is natural to wonder what might have caused this. One thought is to assume substance abuse is to blame. For example, a similar situation occurred in 2005 when former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi suffered a massive stroke just days after his team won the Super Bowl. Stroke experts around the country speculated that, due to Bruschi’s age and generally good health, he must have taken drugs while celebrating the win, causing the stroke. 

However, that assumption was false. Bruschi was found to have a patent foramen ovale, or a tiny hole in the heart that never closed at birth. A blood clot had slipped through the hole and traveled to his brain, causing the stroke. 

“People with high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which are increasing in young adults in the U.S., have double the risk of suffering a stroke. People with more than two risk factors might face as high as 10 times the risk of stroke as a healthy adult.”

Mark Goldberg, M.D.

Luke Perry’s stroke was caused by an “ischemic cerebrovascular accident," which occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel and prevents blood and oxygen from getting to a part of the brain. It's unclear whether Singleton's stroke was ischemic or hemorrhagic, which occurs when an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures. Singleton reportedly struggled with high blood pressure for many years.

That is one of the known risk factors for strokes, which include:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking

Young adults with several risk factors are at higher risk. For example, people with high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which are increasing in young adults in the U.S., have double the risk of suffering a stroke. Young people with more than two risk factors might face as high as 10 times the risk of stroke as a healthy person the same age. 

In young adults, rare causes of stroke might include rupture or blockage of abnormal arteries in the brain, recent neck injury, unexpected heart abnormalities, or disorders of blood clotting. 

Why everyone should know the symptoms of stroke 

Recognizing stroke symptoms is important at any age. If it doesn’t happen to you, it could happen to a friend, a neighbor, your partner, or even your child. The challenge is that it is more difficult for friends and family to recognize stroke symptoms in younger people because stroke is not top of mind. Stroke is often thought of as strictly an “older person’s disease,” and that misconception can result in delayed or inadequate treatment.

Stroke symptoms come on suddenly, not gradually, and symptoms are the same for people of any age. If you notice these sudden-onset symptoms in yourself or someone else of any age, call 911 and get to the doctor immediately to be evaluated for stroke:

  • Balance problems
  • Difficulty walking
  • Double vision
  • Severe unexplained headache
  • Sensory loss or numbness
  • Unintelligible or garbled speech
  • Weakness on one side of face/arm/leg

Don’t wait to seek care or wait for symptoms improve. Remember, “time is brain” when it comes to stroke evaluation and treatment. UT Southwestern is a Level III Comprehensive Stroke Center, which means we have expert stroke doctors on call at all times. 

We also can offer the latest, most effective treatments for strokes, including medical “clot-busting” therapies to clear the blocked artery that is causing an ischemic stroke. Additionally, we can perform surgery for hemorrhagic strokes, as well as thrombectomy, an advanced clot removal procedure that can reduce brain damage in certain patients with ischemic strokes if they arrive at the hospital in time. 

Related reading: Breaking news: New stroke procedure quadruples care timeline

While it is tragic to see people as young as John Singleton and Luke Perry suffer strokes, it is not entirely uncommon. The best way to reduce the risk of stroke is to be aware of and manage your personal health risk factors. Stroke can be arbitrary, but in many cases people have the power to proactively reduce their risk. 

If you or a loved one has risk factors for stroke, be proactive. Connect with a stroke doctor to find out how you can reduce your risk. Call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online. 

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