Analysis: high-profile cases involving Luke Perry, Jessie J, Emilia Clarke and others show that strokes can occur at any age

By Fiona MaloneGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

The untimely death of Beverly Hills 90210 and Riverdale actor, Luke Perry, shocked the television world in early March. The actor suffered a "massive stroke" at the age of 52. His friends and colleagues reported that Perry was in great shape at the time and was leading a relatively healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, his death is evidence that stroke can occur in people of any age and that it is not just a disease of the elderly or the overweight. 

Strokes occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the brain tissue. Over 80% of all strokes occur when one of the blood vessels, supplying blood to the brain, becomes blocked. This type of stroke is known as an ischaemic stroke and the blockages are most often caused by blood clots or clogged arteries. The blockage prevents adequate blood flow to the brain tissue causing the brain to become starved of oxygen resulting in the sudden death of brain cells.

From RTÉ Rado 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, Shannonree Maher talks about having a stroke at the age of 17

In 2001, actress Sharon Stone was just 39 years old when she was diagnosed with a haemorrhagic stroke. A haemorrhagic stroke is less common compared to the ischaemic stroke, and occurs when a weakened blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bursts. The blood leaks out into brain instead of bringing oxygen to the brain cells. Loss of speech, muscle weakness, and paralysis of any part of the body are all symptoms associated with stroke. Last year, Stone revealed the difficulties she experienced in learning how to speak, walk and write again during her recovery. 

More recently, Emilia Clarke, star of HBO’s Game of Thrones, was admitted to hospital with the first of two haemorrhages at 24 years of age. In an emotional article in the New Yorker, she describes the pain and fear she felt during her recovery and how lucky she is to be alive today. 

Malcolm in the Middle star, Frankie Muniz was hospitalised at the age of 26 after having a mini-stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). During a TIA, the body fights back against the blockage by naturally dissolving it using anticoagulants present in the blood or pushing it further through the cerebral vasculature. The blockage isn’t in place long enough to do any lasting damage to the brain tissue, but it can be a clear warning sign that a full-blown stroke could be about to follow. A TIA happens before 15% of all strokes and one-third of people who have a TIA go on to have a more severe stroke within one year.

From RTÉ Six One News, a 2016 study shows that a rising number of strokes among young people

A 2017 report by the American Academy of Neurology found that 15% of all ischemic strokes happen to young adults and adolescents. For example, singer Jessie J suffered a stroke at the extremely young age of 18. However, the risk factors for stroke associated with children and adolescents can be different to those associated with adults. The pop star was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat during her childhood. Irregular heartbeats, such as atrial fibrillation, contribute to over 45% of stroke caused by blood clots in the brain. Congenital heart disease, blood clotting disorders, meningitis, head trauma and autoimmune disorders also contribute to the rise in stroke occurrence among younger people.

Yet there are still many unknown causes of stroke in those under 18. Stroke remains among the top 10 causes of death in children, according to the National Stroke Association, with no previous risk factor identified in about half of childhood stroke cases. Study and monitoring of such cases is growing rapidly, as paediatric stroke carries a significant recurrence risk of up to 50%.

Strokes develop so unexpectedly that it’s important to recognise the signs and symptoms quickly

Stroke is the second leading cause of death and the leading cause of long-term disability worldwide. According to the Irish Heart Foundation, one of the most important ways to protect yourself from stroke is by maintaining a healthy diet and weight. Smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity and excessive drinking all increase a patient’s risk of stroke. 

However if there are undiagnosed cardiovascular disease such as an irregular heartbeat or blood clotting disorder, or if there are weaknesses present within the cerebral vasculature, then there is little effect external lifestyle changes can have on patient stroke propensity. Managing and monitoring any known heart or brain conditions with the help of your doctor would be most beneficial to minimise any stroke risk.

Save a life – know the symptoms

Signs of stroke are often missed in patients because there is a lack of awareness that the stroke is actually happening, especially if the patient is not of the stereotypical stroke age. This is a huge problem as strokes develop so unexpectedly, so it’s important to recognise the signs and symptoms quickly. The F.A.S.T. acronym was created as a helper for people to remember obvious warning signs of stroke. 

From RTÉ One News, a report on the increase in people of working age having strokes

F.A.S.T. stands for: Face, Arms, Speech, and Time.

Face: has their face fallen on one side. Can they smile?

Arms: can they raise both their arms and keep them there?

Speech: is their speech slurred?

Time: to call 999 if you see any one of these signs

Stroke destroys two million brain cells every minute. The longer it takes for a patient to receive treatment, the more damage the brain is under. If you suspect that someone is having a stroke, call 999 immediately, no matter what age they are.

Fiona Malone is a Biomedical Engineer Postdoctoral Research Fellow with Medical and Engineering Technology Gateway at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ