Teen heartthrob Luke Perry’s death points to the danger of strokes

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

Luke Perry was a television actor and movie star for more than 35 years, most famous as Dylan McKay, a brooding and alcoholic teenager who was the son of a millionaire on the TV series Beverly Hills, 90210 from 1990 to 1995, and again from 1998 to 2000.  He was ranked #6 in the list of “TV’s 25 Greatest Teen Idols” (TV Guide, January 23, 2005).  He starred in a wide variety of films and television shows, most recently in the CW series Riverdale. He was hospitalized with a stroke on February 27, 2019, and died five days later. 

Luke Perry

Early Life and Career

Coy Luther Perry III was born in 1966, in Mansfield, Ohio. His father was a steel worker and his mother was a housewife.  His parents divorced when he was six and when his mother remarried, they moved to Fredricktown, Ohio.  His biological father died of a heart attack in 1980.  In high school, Perry was a mediocre student but did play on the baseball team and was voted “Biggest Flirt” by his classmates. He said that he was “something of a prankster; one time I put a ski mask on my head and used a fake gun on the school secretary so that I could get some of my friends out of detention.”  

After high school, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting.  To support himself, he worked as a road paver and in a doorknob factory.  Finding no success with acting in Hollywood, he moved to New York. He said that he had auditioned for 256 acting jobs before he finally got a role in a television commercial. His first major parts were in the daytime soap operas Loving (1987–88) and Another World (1988–89).  He then moved back to Los Angeles and made his major breakthrough at age 24 when he was chosen to play Dylan McKay in Beverly Hills, 90210.  He became an instant teenage heartthrob, which opened the door to his being offered several movie roles.  At age 29 he left the TV series to further his career in the movies.  In 1998, at age 32, an offer of increased income enticed him to return to the TV show that had made him famous, and he continued in his role as Dylan McKay for three more years. After that series ended, he appearing in theater productions, movies, and television productions. From 2017 until his death in 2019, he played Fred Andrews, the father of Archie on the popular CW series, Riverdale.

Personal Life and Health History 

In 1993 at age 27, he married actress Rachel Minnie Sharp.  They had two children and divorced after 10 years of marriage.   His son, Jack, became a professional wrestler known by his ring name “Jungle Boy” Nate Coy.  At the time of his death, Perry was engaged to Wendy Bauer.

At age 49, Perry was diagnosed with colon polyps, a pre-cancerous condition that is associated with eating too little fiber (found in vegetables, fruits and seeds), eating too much meat and sugar, and drinking too much alcohol.  Perry said that he made radical changes to his diet and lifestyle after this health scare, and became an active spokesperson for colon cancer awareness.

On February 27, 2019 at age 52, he suffered a massive stroke at his home and was hospitalized. A day later, he suffered a second stroke and had to be put on life support machines to keep him breathing and his heart beating. Four days later, after accepting that he had no brain activity and was not going to recover, his family decided to remove him from the life support machines. 

Strokes Before Age Fifty

Ten percent of strokes occur in people under the age of fifty and these younger stroke victims are far more likely than older victims to die from the stroke or within the next 20 years (JAMA. March 20, 2013).  There are two main types of strokes: those are caused by blocked arteries (usually a clot), and those caused by bleeding into the brain or its coverings (Stroke Res Treat, 2011;2011:535672). 

Symptoms of a Stroke

If you think you may be suffering from a stroke, get to a hospital as soon as possible. Call 911 immediately if you have: 

• Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm, or leg, (often on one side of the body)

• Sudden confusion, trouble talking or understanding speech

• Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes

• Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination

• Sudden severe headache with no known cause 

If you have a blocked artery,  doctors can remove the clot by inserting a tube into neck veins, threading it up to the blocked artery, expanding the tube to open the artery, and placing a stent-like, hollow metal tube to keep the artery open.  If you have bleeding into your brain, doctors must remove the excess blood to prevent it from crushing the brain. 

Other danger signs include double vision, drowsiness, nausea or vomiting. Sometimes the warning signs may last only a few moments and then disappear. These brief episodes, known as transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are sometimes called “mini-strokes.” Although brief, they identify an underlying serious condition that isn’t going away without medical help. Unfortunately, since they clear up, many people ignore them. 

Lessons from Luke Perry’s Tragic Death

Risk factors for strokes include: 

• high cholesterol (60 percent) 

• smoking (44 percent) 

• high blood pressure (39 percent) 

• excess use of alcohol 

• diabetes 

• lack of exercise 

• overweight (Vasc Health Risk Manag, 2015; 11: 157–164).   

If you have any of these risk factors, make the necessary lifestyle changes and work with your doctor to bring your health issues under control.  I recommend that everyone should eat an anti-inflammatory diet,  exercise, avoid overweight, and abstain from smoking and alcohol.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com