Patrice O’Neal death: Stroke’s risk factors -- and complications

Stand-up comic Patrice O’Neal’s death Tuesday at age 41 from complications of a stroke he suffered in October highlights just how relatively common strokes are -- and how dangerous.

“Strokes are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second-leading cause of death in the world -- so it happens to a lot of people,” said Dr. John M. Kennedy, director of Preventive Cardiology and Wellness at Marina Del Rey Hospital.

The vast majority of strokes -- about 85% -- are ischemic strokes, which means they’re caused by something -- often a clot that formed in the heart or a piece of plaque that formed in the carotid artery in the neck -- traveling up and disrupting blood flow to part of <runtime:topic id="HHA00008">the brain. About 15% of strokes are hemorrhagic, caused when a blood vessel bursts in the brain.

O’Neal had reportedly suffered from diabetes, which is a significant risk factor for stroke, according to the National Stroke Assn. Other risk factors include obesity, atrial fibrillation and high blood pressure -- which, according to the association, “is one of the most common causes of stroke because it puts unnecessary stress on blood vessel walls, causing them to thicken and deteriorate.” When that happens, “cholesterol or other fat-like substances may break off of artery walls and block a brain artery.”


Depending on the part of the brain affected, strokes can manifest in a variety of ways, including speech impairment or loss of feeling or movement in the limbs. Some strokes may cause no lasting neurological damage, Kennedy said, while others may result in paralysis or even death -- if, for example, they damage the area of the brain controlling breathing.

O’Neal was reported to have died from complications from the stroke, though it’s not clear what they were. In general, such complications can take many forms, Kennedy said. If a patient is bedridden, they’re more likely to develop infections, including potentially fatal ones. Often, he added, strokes lead to difficulty swallowing – and if contents go down the wrong pipe, they can lead to a life-threatening form of pneumonia called aspiration pneumonia. Scarring in the brain tissue caused by the stroke can also be a trigger for seizures.

If you have risk factors for stroke, treating those conditions can help, Kennedy said. Lowering blood pressure, managing diabetes and maintaining a healthy weight are all ways to lower your risk.

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