Published on March 15, 2019

A tragic reminder that stroke can happen at any ageStroke Can Happen at Any Age

The recent untimely death of actor Luke Perry at age 52 is a tragic example that stroke can strike at any stage of life. 

“His death is a reminder that strokes can happen to people of all ages,” said Hyannis neurologist Mathew J. Pulicken, MD, MHS. “It’s important to know the risk factors, especially if you have a history of heart attack or stroke in your family.”

Perry, who starred in the TV shows “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Riverdale,” died on March 4 from the complications of a massive stroke caused by a blood clot in the brain.

Nearly three-quarters of all strokes occur in people over the age of 65, but even babies can have strokes in utero or shortly after birth, said Dr. Pulicken, who practices at Neurologists of Cape Cod in Hyannis.

For older people, the most common cause is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, he said. This is when a build-up of cholesterol plaque interferes with blood flow. Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis in a younger person. Cigarette smoking also can cause the narrowing of blood vessels.

“When someone who’s young has a stroke, you always consider other possibilities, such as a congenital malformation where you have a hole in the heart or some other irregularity in the heart, which can lead to clots moving up to the brain,” said Dr. Pulicken.

Some blood conditions can make a young person more at risk of stroke, he said.

“That’s called a hypercoagulable condition, meaning your blood is prone to be thicker and form more clots. Inflammatory and rheumatological conditions also can raise the risk for stroke in younger people.”

If your family history puts you at risk for stroke, it is important to see your primary care physician and be screened for these conditions, Dr. Pulicken said.

“The sooner you get this under control, the sooner you can delay the narrowing of these blood vessels, thereby reducing the risk of strokes.”

In younger people, certain drugs, especially the abuse of illicit drugs, can lead to sudden clots being formed, leading to strokes, he said.

“In older people, your arteries are going to get narrow over time. High blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or smoking will increase your risk.”

Know the signs of stroke

The symptoms of a stroke can be different, based on which area of the brain has an interrupted blood flow, said Dr. Pulicken.

“The most common symptoms are loss of speech, having facial droop or weakness on one side of the body. If you see these symptoms, call 911 immediately,” he said.

The F.A.S.T. guidelines recommended by the American Heart/American Stroke Association will help you recognize the signs of stroke. Timely treatment is the key to saving someone’s life or quality of life.

F – Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

A – Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

S – Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

T – Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately. Paramedics can begin life-saving treatment on the way to the emergency room.