Health & Fitness

Hollywood deaths bring strokes into focus. What are the numbers in Merced County?

The recent deaths of two well-known and relatively young Hollywood celebrities have placed stroke in the spotlight, and Merced is at the center of the deadly disease.

Data from the California Department of Public Health shows Merced County has one of the highest stroke death rates out of the state’s 58 counties.

Luke Perry, 52, known for his role in Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210, died after suffering a stroke in early March. A month later, John Singleton, 51, director and screenwriter of “Boyz n the Hood,” also died following a stroke.

Merced County’s age-adjusted death rate stands at 44.1 percent, according to 2019 data from the California Department of Public Health. Sacramento County’s age-adjusted stroke death rate is at 43.9 percent, while San Luis Obispo’s age-adjusted rate is all the way up at 47.6 percent.

The age-adjusted death rate is a process used to calculate how much each age group in a population contributed to the overall death rate.

“A third of strokes happen in younger people,” said Dr. William Likosky, who is a neurologist and associate clinical professor at UCSF Fresno.

But in Fresno County, he said, more strokes happen than any other Central Valley region. Although, Merced County is also high on the list.

Fresno County has the ninth-highest stroke death rate in the state, with an age-adjusted rate of 45 percent, according to the data. In comparison, the age-adjusted rate for the state as a whole is 36.3 percent.

FILE -- Director John Singleton does post production for his film “Four Brothers,” in Burbank, Calif., July 19, 2005. Singleton, whose powerful debut film, Boyz N the Hood, earned him an Oscar nomination for best director, the first for an African-American, died on April 29, 2019, in Los Angeles. He was 51. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times) MONICA ALMEIDA NYT

Fresno County also ranked highest among counties with large urban populations. Los Angeles County has a 34 percent age-adjusted death rate, San Diego County’s rate is 35.6 percent, San Francisco’s is 30.9 percent, and Santa Clara County stands at a 26.8 percent of an age-adjusted death rate.

There are several contributing factors for the high rate in Merced County, including a large population of people in the area who are not native English speakers, plus the high poverty rate and a large number of migrant workers who might not always have access to health care, complicated further by the shortage of medical providers.

Drug use also increases the risk of having a stroke, Likosky said. “It’s not surprising and it’s nobody’s fault,” he said of local high rate.

Certain ethnic groups, Likosky said, are ranked higher risk for strokes. That includes Hmong people, and Merced and Fresno counties are home to two of the biggest Hmong communities in the country, with more than 30,000 Hmong residents living in the two counties in 2010.

Fresno County also has a high level of people with hypertension, which if it goes untreated is one of the main drivers for heart disease and strokes, Likosky said. There are also people with untreated diabetes, which also leads to heart disease.

“We have sort of a population, which is less aware of medical care,” he said in general. “A lot of them are in poverty.”

Still, heart disease and strokes are going down as a whole, nationally, he said.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star