For Americans of a certain age, the power of celebrity and sad news — the early death of acting heart-throb Luke Perry and the announced Stage 4 cancer diagnosis of game show host Alex Trebek — may offer important health warnings about two leading causes of death: strokes and cancer.
Strokes kill 140,000 Americans each year—that’s 1 out of every 20 deaths, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The agency says, “Someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds. Every 4 minutes, someone dies of stroke. Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. About 610,000 of these are first or new strokes.”
The condition mostly affects those 65 and older, but strokes can occur in younger people, with the New York Times reporting that “seven in one million Americans under age 50 die annually from strokes caused by a blocked blood vessel, and nine per million die from a brain hemorrhage, the two main types of strokes.”
Perry was 52, and, though many may not have realized it, he became a symbol and star for a demographic group that is trapped between better known cohorts and gets less due: Generation Xers. As they age, and even with stroke being uncommon, GenXers may wish to know more about the condition, how to detect and react to it, and how to try to avoid it, experts said.
Kara Swisher, a New York Times columnist who has become a much-read voice on technology and society, wrote a powerful Op-Ed on how following old-fashioned practices—heeding her older brother—saved her life when she had a stroke at 49. She had been organizing an all-star tech conference in Hong Kong and fighting through severe head pain, as well as noticing difficulty with her speech. Her symptoms cleared up, sort of, but she decided to chat about them with her distant sibling, who was a doctor. She reported:
Because he was actually a very good doctor, he insisted in an increasingly urgent tone that I go to the hospital right then. That’s because when it comes to strokes, time is critical. You have to get the blood flowing back to the part of the brain that is not getting it. So, I listened, for once, sidelining the obstreperous little sister, and took a car to get an emergency MRI. There it was on the screen: evidence of a transient ischemic attack, often called a mini-stroke.
Experts have promoted FAST, an acronym-based way for the public to understand and deal with strokes: the F stands for face, which is a reminder to ask a person who may be having a stroke to smile and see if the two sides of the face work in tandem; A stands for arms, asking the individual to raise both and see if one arm inexplicably drifts downward; S stands for checking on individuals’ speech to see if it is slurred or strange; and T represents time — urgent action is needed to call 911 and get a person having a stroke immediate care because, as another care axiom summarizes, Time=Brain. In other words, delay can contribute to damage and loss of crucial brain tissue.
Individuals of all ages can reduce their stroke risk by eating in healthful fashion, watching their weight, exercising, not smoking, and restricting their drinking. They may wish to be wary of ties between stroke and diabetes and high blood pressure and obesity. They may want to talk more with their doctors if they have a history themselves or in their family of stroke or heart disease.
By the way, maintaining healthful lifestyles also can be beneficial in reducing risks of many cancers, including the harder to detect and too often still deadly form that attacks the pancreas. Trebek, 78, the longtime host of the popular and enduring show “Jeopardy,” has said he has Stage 4 of the disease and he will do all he can to fight it.
The American Cancer Society says that more than 56,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and about 45,000 of them will die from it. Trebek’s Stage 4 diagnosis means that the cancer has advanced and spread to other parts of his body.
Tonia Smith, a wife, mother, athlete, and self-described “healthiest person I knew,” has written for the Washington Post about the strains of dealing with pancreatic cancer. It can be a “very isolating disease with an abysmally low survival rate, 8.5 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. It was even lower — 5 percent — when I was diagnosed. The community of survivors is small — probably the most well-known among them is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — but we exist. Five years later, I at last can say that I am one of them.”
Smith says that optimism, resilience, and persistence are needed to endure surgeries, chemotherapy, and the intensity and duration of treatment for as consuming and dreaded a disease as pancreatic cancer.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care, especially as the costs for it explode and the uncertainty and complexity of it abounds. We all need to do what we can to stay out of the medical system by keeping as healthy as we can. It’s painful to get prodded to do so by tragedies affecting personalities that have become well-thought-of parts of our collective lives. Baby boomers know this, and it’s too bad we can’t somehow keep those in Generations X, Y, and Z, millenials and whoever follows us from the disheartening reality.