At just 52 years old, Luke Perry’s death from a “massive” stroke is an important reminder that strokes do not just affect the elderly.
The Beverly Hills, 90210 and Riverdale star was rushed to the hospital following a stroke on Feb. 27 but never regained consciousness, a source tells PEOPLE. He died five days later.
Experiencing a stroke at age 52, particularly of this magnitude, is “uncommon,” but highlights the need for stroke prevention at every age, Dr. Thomas Maldonado, vascular surgeon and professor of surgery at NYU Langone Health, tells PEOPLE.
A stroke occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen, which either happens when there is a bleed in the brain, or in most cases, about 80 percent of the time, when plaque or a clot cuts off blood flow in an artery that leads to the brain.
“Strokes are now the number one cause of death in Americans,” Maldonado says. “It tends to happen later in life as we age, because there’s more time for the plaque to build up, but it certainly can happen in young people like [Perry].”
There are a few different reasons why people develop that plaque buildup. Genetics are a major factor and family history can be a predictor for strokes, but smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure all raise the risk of strokes. And for every ten years after age 55, the stroke risk nearly doubles, according to the American Stroke Association.
Meanwhile, new trends in the population are emerging. Women and African-Americans are more likely to suffer from strokes, and strokes are also on the rise in young people, according to the American Heart Association. About one-third of Americans hospitalized for strokes are now under 65, the Centers for Disease Control reports.
Maldonado advises people to stop smoking, focus on following a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise, as well as going for regular cholesterol screenings and checking for plaque buildup.
But it’s also essential to know the signs of a stroke and be ready if one happens. If a stroke is caught and treated at a hospital within three to four hours, the survival rate is much higher, depending on the severity.
“Time is of the essence,” Maldonado says.
He says to look for numbness or paralysis on one side of the face, slurred speech and temporary blindness.
“When they occur, people have to recognize them and call 911 and get help right away,” he says.
Another thing to look out for are “mini-strokes,” or TIA, a transient ischemic attack.
“It’s almost like a tease of a stroke, a small stroke that only lasts a few minutes sometimes and then the symptoms go away,” Maldonado says. But “that is sometimes a harbinger of a more massive stroke that’s about to happen. People get lulled into the false sense of security that they’re fine when actually it’s just the warning sign of something bigger.”
As long as people get to the hospital quickly, they can get medication that’s “almost like Drano” to break up the clot, or undergo surgery to clear out the plaque buildup.
Strokes vary widely in severity and treatment, so it’s tough to predict the outcome. But Maldonado says that “people can be rescued if they’re treated in three to four hours.”
“The younger you are, the better the elasticity in the brain and the better chance of regaining function,” he says. “Rehab is an important part of treating stroke.”
But sadly, with massive strokes or ones where a large part of the brain was impacted and died, “oftentimes those patients will not survive, or will have a massive deficit if they do.”
“In [Perry’s] case it was tragic,” Maldonado says.
In lieu of flowers, the Perry family ask that donations be made to Fight Colorectal Cancer and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
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