Luke Perry's Death By Stroke Is a Wakeup Call For Gen X

Culture Writer
Luke Perry in 1994 (left) and 2016 (right)
Left; Fox Television/Courtesy of Getty Images and Right; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

For much of my generation, Dylan McKay was like one of our friends from high school. The troubled bad boy with a heart of gold — made famous by actor Luke Perry on the hit ‘90s show Beverly Hills, 90210 — Dylan was one of us. And, by proxy, so was Perry.

So when news first broke last week that Perry had suffered what TMZ called a “massive stroke” at the age of 52, it sent shock waves through Gen Xers like myself.

My first reaction was, “Wait, what?” Then: disbelief. Fifty-two-year-olds don’t usually have strokes, right? And if they do, they definitely recover, especially if they’re generally healthy, as Perry seemed to be…right? Even as all remained quiet on the update front, I remained hopeful that he would pull through, much like Sharon Stone did back in 2001 after suffering a stroke. Unfortunately, he did not—and hearts around the world broke in a collective snap.

What made Perry’s death so gutting was not only his age, but what he represented to so many of us. Though younger generations met him as Fred Andrews (father of Archie) on The CW’s Riverdale, to me he would always be the impossibly sexy Mr. McKay. Along with 90210’s Brenda Walsh (his one true love — don’t @ me) and so many other ‘90s teens, I fell hard for Dylan’s sideburns and perfectly timed eyebrow raise. He was into literature and surfing. He drove a vintage Porsche. He carried himself with a swagger that drew comparisons to James Dean. He was youthful virility personified.

It made no sense that this symbol of vigor had just died from a stroke. A stroke! We’re not old enough for this to be our reality, we Gen Xers thought. Unfortunately, it’s less rare than most of us realized.

The truth about stroke and age

Though stroke in this age group isn’t the norm, “it’s definitely not uncommon,” says Seemant Chaturvedi, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at the University of Maryland, who has done focused research on the occurrence of strokes in younger patients. “If you look at the US population as a whole, about 10 percent of strokes occur below age 50. When you consider that there are about 800,000 strokes per year in the US, that leaves a sizable number of patients who will have a stroke below age 50,” he explains. “And if you go up to, say, age 55, then you’re increasing the pool to about 15 percent of patients.”

No one is fully immune. As Larry Goldstein, M.D., chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Kentucky and a spokesperson for the American Heart/American Stroke Association, puts it, “Strokes can occur at any age, from just after birth until people are in their 90s or even older.”

A new study just published in the February issue of the journal Stroke highlights the concern for younger demos. Assessing stroke survivors at a northern California health-care system between the ages of 1 month and 49 years, the researchers found a significant stroke increase for those entering their 20s who also had either high blood pressure or more than one risk factor. Having any risk factor in the 30s and 40s was also associated with a higher chance of stroke.

Stroke risks in young people

Smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea: They’re all linked with stroke, no matter what your age. “People in their 20s and 30s aren't typically thinking that high blood pressure or diabetes are things they need to worry about, yet they really do make an impact on stroke risk,” Sharon Poisson, M.D., an associate professor of neurology at the University of Colorado and lead researcher of the Stroke study, told the American Heart Association. But in addition to the usual suspects, younger people have unique risk factors:

  • Pregnancy. Women of child-bearing age are at a higher risk for stroke during and after pregnancy, says Dr. Goldstein.
  • Birth control pills. Being on the pill can increase the chances of a stroke, Dr. Chaturvedi notes, especially if the woman smokes or has high blood pressure.
  • Blood clots. Another typical cause in younger patients is the tearing of a blood vessel or a problem with the heart that creates a clot that then dislodges and travels to the brain.
  • Migraines with visual disturbances. These can significantly up your risk of ischemic stroke, particularly in women below age 55.
  • Prehypertension. If your blood pressure is between 120 to 139/80 to 89 mm Hg, get screened for hypertension at least once a year.

Also at play for the younger set: being less attuned to the warning signs of a stroke, thinking that, at their age, it can’t possibly be what’s happening to them. And while Dr. Chaturvedi tells us that younger stroke patients often respond more favorably to clot-busting medication, getting treated quickly is always incredibly important.

The acronym F.A.S.T. is an easy way to remember the signs of stroke, though Dr. Goldstein likes to start with a B and an E...so B.E.F.A.S.T. The key with all of these is that, if it’s a stroke, the symptom will typically come on suddenly.

  • B for Balance: Do you have any weakness in one of your legs?
  • E for Eyes: Is there a loss of vision to one eye?
  • F is for Face: Is there a drooping on one side?
  • A is for Arm: Can you lift both arms or is there any weakness?
  • S is for Speech: Slurred speech or losing the ability to come up with words can be an indicator.
  • T is for Time: As in, don’t waste any and call 911 immediately.

A sudden severe headache or sudden unexplained dizziness are also red flags, says Dr. Chaturvedi.

What can you do now?

Though having a family history of stroke is beyond your control (can’t change your parents!), experts say that 90 percent of all strokes are caused by things you can work to minimize. If you think you’re at risk, talk to your doctor about regular monitoring. And be sure to follow these good practices:

  • Get moving. Exercising three to four times a week for 40 minutes will help reduce blood pressure (think: moderate to vigorous walking, biking, or swimming).
  • Go Mediterranean. Fill your plate with lots of olive oil, fresh fruit, fish, legumes, and veggies — all part of the low-sodium, high-potassium Mediterranean diet, which was added to the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association’s 2016 guidelines for preventing first-time stroke. While you’re at it, up the nuts: The guidelines suggest having a daily serving of tree nuts or peanuts vs this diet’s typical recommendation of nuts three times a week.
  • Buy a blood pressure monitor. If you’re hypertensive, lowering your blood pressure is the single most effective way to prevent stroke, and docs recommend you regularly check your BP at home with a digital upper-arm cuff device.

As for Luke Perry, we don’t currently know the root cause or symptoms of his stroke, and we may never know. But we can all prepare ourselves as best we can to recognize one if we see it — and that may be one of his lasting legacies…along with his unmistakable brand of cool.

See more helpful articles:

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Stroke?

10 Risk Factors for Stroke

6 Ways to Cut Your Stroke Risk