Oscar Winners Not Immune to Cardiovascular Burden

Susan Jeffrey

February 17, 2011

February 17, 2011 (Los Angeles, California) — Results of a new analysis looking at the occurrence of stroke and myocardial infarction (MI) among all Oscar winners and nominees since the awards began in 1927 shows a nod from the academy doesn't exempt them from the burden of cardiovascular disease.

Of 409 winners and nominees through 2009, 7.3% had a stroke and 9.5% an MI.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Saver

Although these numbers are in line with rates that would be expected in the general population, senior author Jeffrey L. Saver, MD, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), pointed out that they gleaned information on these events through publicly available records, "and that almost certainly underestimates the true frequency of stroke among leading film actors and actresses."

"We can say that because we found such a high rate of stroke and MI just from publicly available information, that there must be an enormous toll that cardiovascular disease and stroke have exacted on Hollywood," Dr. Saver said in an interview.

The researchers presented their results here at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2011.

To Live and Die in LA

The investigators undertook this analysis in honor of the first stroke conference held in Los Angeles, Dr. Saver said. "We are at UCLA, and this is an industry town, and we are very aware of the influence that Hollywood has on America and the world and the way it reflects America and the world."

They felt it was a good occasion to undertake a systematic study of the frequency and impact of stroke and MI on Hollywood, he said. To do that, they identified all the actors and actresses that have ever been nominated for best actor and best actress awards from 1927 to 2009, a total of 409 nominees, 140 of whom have won at least once.

Lifetime reports of stroke and MI events were identified using Internet searches for documents in the public record, including press reports, press releases, and obituaries.

"There is a database that was compiled by earlier researchers of the causes of death in all the Oscar winners, and we were able to access that database," Dr. Saver noted. "I want to emphasize we did not look into any medical records or violate any confidentiality in the study."

The researchers found frequent reports of stroke and MI in this population.

Table. Cardiovascular Events Among Oscar Nominees and Winners, 1927-2009

Event No. (%)
Fatal/nonfatal stroke 30 (7.3)
MI 39 (9.5)
Stroke or MI 65 (15.9)

MI = myocardial infarction

Strokes were fatal in 6 and nonfatal in 24 cases and more frequent in women than men (18/30).

"Not only did we find that stroke and MI were a frequent occurrence but also that they clearly had a substantial impact on the careers of actors and actresses," Dr. Saver noted.

Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, James Garner, and Sharon Stone

Using the Internet Movie Database and other sources of data, they found the annual number of movies or television appearances for those actors and actresses who had an event dropped "precipitously" in the 3 years after the first occurrence of a stroke (73%) compared with the 3 years prior. The change was still substantial but somewhat less pronounced after an MI (69%). "Stroke is a more disabling condition so it has a greater impact," he noted.

Strokes were equally frequent between Oscar nominees and those who actually won but occurred a longer time after the first nomination among winners than among those who were nominated, a mean of 31.1 years vs 26.8 years (P < .002).

Those who experienced an event ranged from timeless stars, such as Mary Pickford, Bette Davis, and James Cagney, to more recent names, such as Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, Dudley Moore, James Garner, and Sharon Stone.

Since many of the strokes in this series occurred at later ages, Dr. Saver said, it's likely that contributing factors were the usual suspects of smoking, hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

The influence of Hollywood on the prevalence of stroke risk factors might be considered somewhat mixed, with glamorization of smoking on one hand but a body image that is slimmer, healthier, and "probably better than the norm of US society" on the other, he said.

"We are hopeful going forward that because stroke is one of the most preventable of all catastrophic diseases, that Hollywood producers and actors and actresses would help to promote ideal health behaviors," he said.

The researchers have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

International Stroke Conference (ISC) 2011: Abstract 2939/P74. Presented February 10, 2011.

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