When Luke Perry died from a stroke on March 4 at the age of 52, my immediate response was the one many people probably had: he was an actor, and they live and party hard, and so the stroke must have been related to his lifestyle. But, while stroke can be caused by some drugs, such as cocaine, they are more often caused by factors such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, conditions that can go undiagnosed or, even after diagnosis, might not be under control. In the case of Perry, there is nothing much to suggest that he suffered from addictions. In fact, he seems to have had a pretty clean image.
Perry was 24 when he was catapulted into the consciousness of American teenage girls, appearing as Dylan McKay in the television drama Beverly Hills 90210. For the rest of his life, he tried to shed his heartthrob persona, his success as a serious actor waxing and waning over the years. His most recent film project was a sign of a new high point in his career, a role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a time in Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film will be released this summer. At 52, he might have been on his way to a promising series of more challenging roles.
It is not unusual, however, for a person under the age of 65 to have a stroke. My father, who was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes in his 30s, suffered a massive stroke in 1968 when he was just 38 years old. His stroke left him paralyzed on the left side of his body, but my father was lucky. Though he was slightly disabled for the rest of his life, he regained the ability to walk within a year. But strokes have other long-term effects on victims. My parents had just realized the American middle-class dream and bought a house in a subdivision in Livermore. The home was new, with a courtyard and a green wall-to-wall carpet that was the envy of our neighbors. My father installed a pond with a fountain—a boy riding a dolphin—in the courtyard, and in the back, our doughboy pool sat in a yard landscaped with dichondra. We were in our second summer there when my father had the stroke and lost his job as a forklift mechanic for Lifton Inc. in Oakland. Unable to afford the mortgage on his reduced income of social security disability and his Navy pension, my parents had to sell their home. For the next 10 years, they struggled to work their way back up to the middle class, never quite making it until my father found a job as director of maintenance and operations for the Merced County Office of Education. With strokes among Americans under the age of 44 on the rise, possibly as a result of increased obesity rates and Type-2 diabetes, more and more Americans are likely to find themselves in a situation similar to my parents. Currently, 10-15 percent of stroke victims are under the age of 45, and strokes are the leading cause of disability in the United States. Annually, strokes are responsible for 140,000 deaths in the U.S. Every year, 17 million people worldwide have strokes.
My father’s stroke came without warning, as I suspect may have been the case for Perry. My father did not have the classic warning sign of an impending massive stroke, a mini-stroke or TMI, or if he did, he didn’t recognize it as a warning sign. Some people carry a genetic mutation which makes them more prone to blood clots, and thus strokes. My father’s mother, many of her nine siblings, and her mother suffered massive strokes, many of them at relatively early ages. Thus, I have long been aware that a stroke might be lingering for me in my future. I know the warning signs: sudden numbness, confusion, dizziness, and severe headache.
But when I suffered an amaurosis fugax two years ago, I did not recognize it as a symptom of a mini-stroke. It happened late at night and was my only symptom. No headache, no confusion, no numbness, no dizziness when I got up to check my face in the mirror, which revealed no drooping. I had been scrolling through my phone in an otherwise dark room, and I decided that my left eye had gone blind because of the glare from my phone. I decided to go back to bed and wait for morning, and when morning came, my vision was restored. A few days later, I mentioned the incident to my husband, who insisted I see a doctor. After a series of tests, my temporary blindness was diagnosed as a mini-stroke, which meant I was at an increased risk for a massive stroke. Live clean, said my doctor, and he put me on an aspirin regimen. I have not lived as clean as he advised, but I am taking the aspirin.
The truth is, there are some preventative measures we can take to possibly avoid strokes, but we cannot really insure ourselves against one or prepare ourselves for the physical, mental, emotional, and financial devastation that linger long after that blood vessel bursts in our brain.
I was lucky. My father survived his stroke and eventually made an almost full recovery. My heart goes out to Perry’s two children, an 18-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son, who were not as fortunate as I was.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.