What price fame? Oscars: Strokes and Heart Attacks

With the Academy Awards less than two weeks away, it’s easy to get caught up in all the hoopla surrounding the event. However a study reported at this month’s American Stroke Association conference in Los Angeles points out that getting an Academy Award nomination may have a serious health implications for its recipients. Today’s blog is reprinted with permission from our colleagues at MedPage Today.

ASA: Movie Stars Not Immune to Vascular Events

By Todd Neale, Staff Writer, MedPage Today

LOS ANGELES — A fair share of Hollywood’s top actors and actresses have suffered strokes or heart attacks through the years, with apparent effects on their careers, a review of public records showed.

Since the Best Actor and Actress Oscars were introduced at the Academy Awards in 1927, 30 nominees (7.3%) have had a stroke and 39 (9.5%) have had an MI, according to Jeffrey Saver, MD, director of the stroke unit at the University of California Los Angeles.

And those who did had dramatic drops in productivity in the years following the event, he reported at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference here. Lead author of the study, Hannah Smith, a research associate in Saver’s lab, told MedPage Today that they looked at vascular events in movie stars as a way to better communicate the effects of stroke and MI to the public.

“Strokes and heart attacks have extracted an enormous toll on Hollywood actors as well as the American population in general, and it’s something that we don’t think about, so we’re hoping the study results will help promote healthier disease-avoiding lifestyles,” she said.

Saver added that “three-quarters of all strokes can be prevented, and if we can get Hollywood producers, actors, and actresses to model the healthy behaviors, then we can lead to better change for all people everywhere and reduce the frequency of this dread condition.”

The researchers searched public records — obituaries, press reports, and a database of the causes of death for Academy Award winners — for reports of stroke or MI among the 409 nominees for the top acting honors through 2009. Overall, 15.9% had a stroke or MI or both.

The researchers highlighted some notable actors and actresses who have had strokes, including Mary Pickford, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Patricia Neal, Dudley Moore, and James Garner.

They also included Liza Minnelli in the count, although reports that came out around the time of her apparent stroke in October 2000 indicated that she, in fact, had viral encephalitis.

Using public records likely resulted in an underestimation of rates because there was concern about making such events public for a period of time, Saver said.

For that reason, it is difficult to compare the rate of stroke and MI identified in the study with that in the general population, he said.

“But I think we can say that because we found this high rate just by review of public records, the rate of these events in Hollywood has been substantial, far more than it should have been.”

And these events appeared to have an effect on acting productivity, according to information from the Internet Movie Database. The number of film and TV appearances dropped from the three years preceding an event to the following three years by 73% for strokes and 69% for MIs.

The glamorization of smoking and tobacco use in Hollywood has “undoubtedly contributed to these events in many of the film actors and actresses as well as the public who follow them,” Saver said.

“On the other hand, Hollywood has had some positive effects,” he continued. “The glamorization of ideal body type in Hollywood has tended to be better at times than the American norm, which has tended to obesity recently.

“So there are both positive and negative effects, and Hollywood has reaped what it’s sown from tobacco use, but also has the opportunity to model better behaviors to help America and the world avoid stroke in the future.”

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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