7 March 2019.
This editorial was first published in Stuff and The Dominion Post.
The sad death of TV star Luke Perry this week has thrown stroke into the spotlight. In particular, the age at which people can have a stroke – Perry was 52.
The reaction in media and social media platforms was overwhelmingly one of surprise. How could someone so young have a stroke?
Sadly, the answer is that Perry’s death was not a freak event. Anyone can have a stroke at any age.
Sure, by far the majority of strokes happen to people at an older age. Around a quarter will occur in people under the age of 65. Every year, around 40 Kiwi children have a stroke.
In most older people the cause of stroke is easy to identify – a blood clot or piece of plaque blocks blood to the brain.
That can be the result of high blood pressure, poor diet, tobacco or alcohol consumption, or simply a part of the aging process.
It’s why getting a regular blood pressure check from middle-age onwards is one of the best defences against stroke.
It’ll detect if there is a problem, and once identified, it can be treated.
In the case of younger stroke patients, it’s more likely an artery has burst, leaking blood into the brain and causing some areas to be deprived of blood.
High blood pressure is still a possible cause, as is an aneurysm.
At the Stroke Foundation, we work with stroke survivors and their families to rebuild their lives after stroke.
Many of them are Perry’s age or much younger. When we speak to them, they often tell the same story: “I thought stroke was an old person’s disease. I never thought it would happen to me.”
Regrettably, this attitude can extend to health professionals. One stroke survivor we’ve worked with was told repeatedly that his symptoms were panic attacks – when in fact he’d had a major stroke.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Many stroke survivors go on to lead healthy, happy lives after their stroke.
A key factor in that recovery is whether the stroke was diagnosed quickly – the sooner a stroke patient gets to hospital, the better their chances of walking out in good shape.
That’s why the FAST message – Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Take Action Call 111 – is so crucial. Getting to hospital within four to six hours of the event enables clot-dissolving drugs or a clot retrieval procedure to be carried out.
But the greatest defence against stroke is knowledge. Learn what causes one, and learn how to respond to one.
The best outcome from Luke Perry’s death is that Kiwis take notice and ask themselves: “It could happen to me. What am I going to do about it?”