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May 09, 2019

The Luke Perry Legacy: No One Is Too Young for a Stroke  

Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP

The recent death of actor Luke Perry caught the world by surprise, in large part because he suffered a massive stroke, something most people associate with older people. Perry was just 52 years old, and while statistically young to have a stroke, he wasn’t “too young.” Roughly 10% of stroke victims are under the age of 45, and Perry’s untimely death was a reality check and reminder for many that strokes can happen to anyone.  

A stroke is often called a “brain attack,” and it occurs when blood flow is cut off to an area of the brain. Without oxygen delivered by blood, cells begin to die, and the function of that area of the brain is compromised. The most common type of stroke is an ischemic stroke, which occurs when the arteries to the brain become narrow or blocked, but in younger patients, there are other factors that may be at play. Up to 25% of strokes in people under the age of 45 are caused by a dissecting blood vessel in the neck — a small tear that causes a clot to form and travel to the brain. Stroke in young people has also been linked to heart problems, in addition to things like drug use and smoking.  

While the prevalence of stroke is decreasing overall, it is increasing for young and middle-aged people.  Stroke is still the second leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for one in every 20 deaths. This year, roughly 800,000 people will suffer from a stroke — one every 40 seconds.  

While Luke Perry’s death was tragic, it has led to a growing awareness that stroke is not just a threat to those over the age of 65. Moreover, the realization that 80% of strokes can be prevented by making simple lifestyle changes is a growing catalyst for change. Here are seven changes that you can make to lower your stroke risk at any age:  

  1. Lose weight. Obesity causes inflammation that can restrict blood flow and increase the risk of clots. It’s also a major culprit in high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes — all of which are important risk factors for stroke. 
  2. Treat high blood pressure. High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke, because it damages blood vessels in the brain and creates blood clots in the arteries. Treating high blood pressure is the single biggest change you can make to lower your stroke risk.   
  3. Quit smoking. Smoking makes you twice as likely to die from a stroke, and the more you smoke, the greater your risk of having a stroke.  
  4. Exercise. Regular exercise can reduce your stroke risk by almost 30%, and in the process, can lower blood pressure and help you lose weight.  
  5. Eat a healthy diet. A diet high in nutrients and low in fat, sugar and sodium will help you control stroke risks like excess weight, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  
  6. Limit alcohol consumption. Drinking raises blood pressure. One drink a day increases your stroke risk by 15%, and consuming four drinks raises your risk by an astounding 35%. So, practice moderation and consider eliminating alcohol altogether to reduce your risk.  
  7. Don’t use drugs. Drug use causes nearly 40% of all strokes in people under the age of 35 and is the most common predisposing condition for strokes among this age group.  

The bottom line is, strokes are not just a problem for the elderly, especially when there are a number of risk factors present. Making important lifestyle changes will not only improve your overall health, but it will also drastically reduce your chances of experiencing a stroke. With the rate of adolescent and middle-age stroke on the rise, it’s important that there is greater awareness of and respect for stroke as a dangerous threat to people of all ages. If you’re concerned about your risk, talk to your nurse practitioner or health care provider. Making lifestyle changes today could literally save your life.