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Stroke Takes a Toll on Hollywood Stars

Suffering a Stroke Links Many Oscar Nominees and Winners

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 10, 2011 (Los Angeles) -- Pop quiz: What do Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Sharon Stone have in common, besides being Hollywood stars of course?

Answer: All are Oscar nominees or winners who suffered a stroke, an event that took a tremendous toll on their and other stars' careers.

Of the 409 actors who were nominated for Best Actor/Actress Awards between 1927 and 2009, 30 (7.3%) suffered a stroke and 39 (9.5%) had heart attacks.

The impact: Their movie and TV appearances -- which on average topped 100 in the three years before their stroke or heart attack -- dropped by about 70% in the three years afterward.

Doctors say they hope the experience of the actors will foster greater awareness of the symptoms of cardiovascular disease and the need to seek help quickly.

Stroke and the Oscars

Speaking at an American Stroke Association meeting, Jeffrey Saver, MD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said that notable nominees (N) or winners (W) who have had strokes include:

  • Mary Pickford (W 1929)
  • Bette Davis (N 1934, W 1935)
  • James Cagney (N 1938, W 1942)
  • Cary Grant (N 1942)
  • Kirk Douglas (N 1950)
  • Richard Burton (N 1954)
  • Grace Kelly (W 1954)
  • Elizabeth Taylor (N 1957, W 1960)
  • Patricia Neal (W 1963)
  • Dudley Moore (N 1982)
  • James Garner (N 1985)
  • Sharon Stone (N 1995)

What prompted the study?

"We are at UCLA and this is an industry town. The fact that the stroke meeting is being held in LA this year seemed an appropriate occasion to investigate the frequency and impact of stroke among leading Hollywood actors," Saver tells WebMD.

So the researchers compiled a list of all nominees for the Best Actor/Actress Awards since the Oscar's inception in 1927. Then they looked for public records, newspaper reports, and studies of heart attacks and stroke among the nominees.

"Since we used public data and many stars don't report [health problems], the figures probably underestimate the rate of cardiovascular events among the actors," Saver says. "So we can't really say if the rate is lower or higher than in the general population."

Raising Stroke Awareness

Among other findings in the study:

  • The average age of nominees at their first stroke was 67.
  • More women had strokes than men (18 vs. 12, or 60% women), a trend also seen in the general public.
  • Stroke was fatal in six of the 30 nominees (20%).
  • During 82 years of Oscar competition, 409 actors/actresses have been nominated for Best Actor/Actress Awards and 140 (34.2%) have won at least once.

Robert J. Adams, MD, director of the Medical University of South Carolina Stroke Center in Charleston, agrees that studies like this can help raise awareness of medical disorders.

"Remember when Ronald Reagan had a [colon] polyp in the 1980s?" he says. "That resulted in a big boost in colon cancer awareness and screenings."

SOURCES: American Stroke Association International Stroke Conference 2011, Los Angeles, Feb. 7-11, 2011.Jeffrey Saver, MD, department of neurology, University of California, Los Angeles.Robert J. Adams, MD, director, Medical University of South Carolina Stroke Center, Charleston.

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