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Stars and Strokes

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By Randi Schmelzer

Published Mar 1, 2011 8:00 AM


With his funny, flirty presentation at this year's Oscars, Kirk Douglas took many viewers off-guard. As surprising as the 94-year-old actor's energy, however, was his slow, garbled speech. Fifteen years after a stroke stole Douglas' ability to speak, the once-gravelly voiced screen legend must still fight to make words.

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Douglas, a three-time Oscar nominee and honorary Bruin (UCLA Medal of Honor '02), has been more candid than many of Hollywood's high-profile stroke victims, but he's got plenty of company: Strokes have "exacted an enormous toll" on some of film's biggest stars, according to a recent study by researchers at the UCLA Stroke Center.

Presented at the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association's (AHA/ASA) International Stroke Conference last month in Los Angeles, the research team investigated — via press releases, obituaries, the Internet Movie Database and other public records — the frequency and impact of stroke among Best Actor and Best Actress Oscar nominees from 1927 through 2009.

By documenting the burden these vascular events have taken on movie icons — including Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant and Dudley Moore — researchers hope to better communicate to the public the devastating damage they can cause, said Hannah Smith, UCLA Stroke Center research associate and the study's lead author.

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Images via the UCLA Stroke Program website.

Of the 409 actors and actresses nominated over the 82-year period, 30 of them suffered strokes, 6 of which were fatal. If those numbers are disturbing to members of the Academy, they should be: Oscar nominees and winners suffered strokes at a lifetime rate of 7.3 percent — more than double the American Heart Association's estimated 2.9 percent risk for "regular" Americans.

Blame it on the high-rollin' Hollywood lifestyle?

That's a start. Acting can be a high-stress profession, at times accompanied by less-than-healthy behavior; stroke-suffering screen legends like Bette Davis, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were as infamous for their tumultuous personal conduct as their award-winning roles.

To that end, the study found stroke-contributing factors in some cases included the usual suspects, such as hypertension and high cholesterol, said Jeffrey Saver, M.D., director of the UCLA Stroke Center.

Smoking, too — shocker! — has "undoubtedly contributed to these events in many of the film actors and actresses," Saver added.

Of course, not all actors are walking bad habits. But even the most gifted movie stars aren't immune to one major contributing factor: advanced age.

The study found the average age of nominees at their first stroke was 67, but victims include much younger stars, as well: Grace Kelly (52), Sharon Stone (43) and Samantha Morton (32), among others.

And while the Stroke Association estimates that one's risk doubles for each decade after age 55, new research finds strokes are fast rising among 15- to 34-year-old Americans, possibly due to a rise in obesity.

With notable exceptions, Oscar-nominated actors tend not to be obese. And rarely are they known to nibble on anything bread-like, let alone scarf down heaping portions of, say, fried fish and hushpuppies.

These are points in their favor, according to the study.

While much of the U.S. has of late leaned toward scale-tipping, "the glamorization of ideal body type in Hollywood has tended to be better at times than the American norm," Saver told AHA/ASA conference attendees.

By displaying model behaviors (like maintaining healthy bodies and eating habits), movie stars have the opportunity to help Americans prevent stroke in the future, he explained.

For now, though, "Brain Attacks" ravage on. Caused when an oxygen-carrying blood vessel is either blocked by a clot or ruptures on its way to the brain, more than 795,000 people in the U.S. suffer a new or recurrent stroke each year.

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The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 136,000 U.S. strokes result in death annually. But for the thousands of survivors, stroke is a leading cause of serious, long-term disability, and movie stars are no exception: The UCLA study found that stroke-related damage substantially hurt their careers. During the three years following their strokes, Oscar nominees' annual on-screen appearances fell an average of 73 percent.

Like most Hollywood stories, this one has a silver lining: As many as three-quarters of all strokes can be avoided — if one is willing to make lifestyle adjustments.

"Key prevention steps include controlling high blood pressure, controlling high cholesterol, not smoking, exercising regularly and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats," said lead study author Smith.

The next step? Convincing Hollywood's top talents to adopt all these healthy behaviors, on-screen and off.

When actors and actresses do that, Saver said, "then we can lead to better change for all people everywhere and reduce the frequency of this condition."

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