Stroke Risks in Those Under 55: First Luke Perry, Now Filmmaker John Singleton Highlight Concerning Trend

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April 30, 2019


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While the stroke rate continues to slide in people 55 and older, the opposite seems to be occurring among those in younger age groups — a trend which has come to light strikingly over the past two months.

On Monday, filmmaker John Singleton, 51, died following a stroke days earlier. In March, actor Luke Perry, 52, had a reported “massive stroke” that ultimately led to his death.

Mr. Singleton, died Monday after having a “major stroke” on April 17, according to a statement from his family. Mr. Singleton was the first African-American filmmaker nominated for the best director Oscar in 1992 for “Boyz n the Hood.”

African-Americans have the highest prevalence of high blood pressure, a primary risk factor for both stroke and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. In a statement, Mr. Singleton’s family urged others to be aware of signs of high blood pressure, which is the top risk factor for stroke.

“More than 40 percent of African American men and women have high blood pressure, which also develops earlier in life and is usually more severe,” reads the statement. “His family wants to share the message with all to please recognize the symptoms by going to Heart.org.”

Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death for adults in the United States and the leading cause of disability, according to the American Stroke Association. Yet the deaths of Mr. Singleton and Mr. Perry have stunned Hollywood and the public, serving as a reminder that strokes can occur even at a relatively young age.

“There are reports that people 35 to 55 are having more strokes and it’s unclear exactly why that is,” says Felipe De Los Rios, M.D., Medical Director, Stroke Program at Baptist Health Neuroscience Center. “But what we do know is that diseases we normally see in older people are happening at younger ages. We see more obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

About half of American adults have at least one risk factor for stroke, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and being overweight.  The most common strokes are “ischemic,” which occur as a result of an obstruction within a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes, which is when blood from an artery begins bleeding into the brain, are much less common, but are more life threatening.

Clinical studies are confirming this trend toward strokes in younger generations. Three years ago, the American Heart Association sounded the first alarm in a statement announcing research results.

“People, especially those under 50, need to realize that stroke does not just occur in the old, and the outcome can be much more debilitating than a heart attack – leaving you living for another 30 to 50 years with a physical disability,” said Joel N. Swerdel, lead study author, and researcher at the Rutgers University School of Public Health in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Between 1995-1999 and 2010-2014, Rutgers researchers found the rate of strokes:

  • more than doubled (a 2.47-fold increase) in people 35 to 39 years old;
  • doubled in people aged 40 to 44;
  • increased to a lesser extent in people 45 to 54 years old;
  • declined in older age groups; and
  • was in sharp contrast to heart attack rates, which decreased in all age groups.

On an age-by-age basis, researchers found that people born between 1945 and 1954 had lower rates of stroke than those born 20 years before or after. More research is needed to explain why Baby Boomers are less likely to have strokes. 

The growing obesity rate is one example cited by researchers as a factor. Moreover, diabetes has been on an upswing over the last 40 years. And while the overall smoking rate has declined considerably since the 1960s, the nicotine habit is higher among younger adults.

“We see more obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure,” says Dr. De Los Rios. “Part of the problem is that younger people tend not to go to the doctor because they are feeling well.”

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