Is The Oscar Ticket to Heart Attack, Stroke?

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Hollywood's biggest stars take to the red carpet Feb. 27 for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. And while Oscar hopefuls may look the picture of health on the big night, they're no safer from heart disease and stroke -- two of the three leading causes of death in the United States -- than anyone else.

To promote heart attack and stroke awareness, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles used public records to examine the prevalence of stroke and heart attack among lead actors and actresses nominated for Oscars since the awards began in 1927.

"We thought, What better way to communicate the effects of stroke and heart attack than by focusing on movie stars?" said lead author Hannah Smith, a research associate at the UCLA Stroke Center. Smith is presenting her findings as a poster at the American Stroke Association International Stroke Conference in Los Angeles.

"Stroke and heart attacks have exacted an enormous toll on Hollywood actors as well as the American population in general," Smith said. "We're hoping the study results will help promote healthier, disease-avoiding lifestyles."

According to the study, 30 of 409 leading actors and actresses (7.3 percent) suffered a stroke -- a proportion that is "sure to be an underestimate," said senior author Dr. Jeffrey Saver, medical director of the UCLA Stroke Unit.

The lifetime risk of stroke in the United States is roughly 2.9 percent, according to a 2010 report from the American Heart Association.

Although the researchers were unable to reliably compare stroke risk among the stars with that in the general population, Saver has a hunch it's higher in Hollywood.

"I think we can say, because we found this high rate just by public records, the rate of these events in Hollywood has been substantial -- far more than it should have been," Saver said.

Famous nominees over the years who suffered from strokes include Mary Pickford, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Patricia Neal, Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, James Garner and Sharon Stone.

Thirty-nine Oscar nominees (9.5 percent) had heart attacks and 65 (15.9 percent) had either a heart attack or a stroke, the authors reported.

Hollywood: Part of the Problem?

The fast-paced and high-strung Hollywood lifestyle might be in part responsible for the cardiovascular risk. But Saver said he suspects other behavioral factors might also be at play.

"On one hand, clearly Hollywood has contributed to these events through the glamorization of smoking and tobacco use, which undoubtedly contributed to many of these events in film actors and actresses as well as the public who follow them," Saver said.

On the other hand, Hollywood might have some positive effects, too.

"The glamorization of the ideal body type in Hollywood has tended to be better at times than the American norm," Saver said. The "norm," he said, is becoming obese.

"Hollywood has reaped what it has sown in tobacco use, but also has the opportunity to model better behavior to help Americans and the world avoid stroke in the future."

The Hollywood elite may be privileged, but they're not protected from the effects of cardiovascular disease on their lives and their livelihoods.

"This had a dramatic impact on their film careers," Saver said, explaining that productivity plummeted after stroke, according to a before-and-after analysis of film and TV appearances listed in the Internet Movie Database. Heart attacks also took a toll on stars' careers, but less so than stroke, Saver said.

"Stroke is among the most preventable of all catastrophic conditions," Saver said, adding that three quarters of strokes can be prevented. "If we can get Hollywood producers, actors and actresses to model the healthy behaviors, then we can lead to better change for people everywhere and reduce the frequency of this condition."