A tragic reminder that stroke can happen at any age
The recent untimely death of actor Luke Perry is a tragic example that stroke can strike at any stage of life.
“His death has put the spotlight on stroke happening in younger age groups,” 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 and up to 15 percent of strokes can happen in patients 45 or younger, said Dr. Pulicken, who practices at Neurologists of Cape Cod in Hyannis. The more common stroke is an ischemic stroke due to a blood clot in the brain and other kind is hemorrhagic stroke, due to rupture of blood vessel in brain.
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, high cholesterol and smoking are the modifiable risk factors which can lead to atherosclerosis in a younger person. .
“When someone who’s young has a stroke, you also consider other possibilities, such as congenital malformations where you have a hole in the heart, or irregular heart rhythm, which can lead to clots from the heart 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 due to changes in blood vessels or blood flow to the brain.”
If there is family history of bleeds in the brain, you can be screened for aneurysms and for ischemic strokes your primary care physician can screen you for modifiable risk factors, 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.
“As people age, arteries all over the body including your brain can get narrow over time. This is why management of risk factors high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or smoking can lead to lowering your risk factors for stroke.”
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 changes or loss of speech, having facial droop or weakness on one side of the body. If you have or notice these changes to someone, call 911 immediately,” he said, as there are medications and interventions that can minimize the damage from ischemic stroke
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.