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Kris Letang's stroke highlights stroke risk in young, healthy people

Kris Letang's stroke highlights stroke risk in young, healthy people
Kris Letang's stroke highlights stroke risk in young, healthy people 00:53

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The news earlier this week of Kris Letang's stroke shocked hockey fans and the entire Pittsburgh community.

So, what could cause a stroke in someone so young and fit? Cleveland Clinic expert says it's more common than we'd think.

"The specific condition is called patent foramen ovale, or PFO for short," said Dr. Shazam Hussain, the director of the Cleveland Clinic's Cerebrovascular Center. "Everyone actually has this in our mother's womb. It's a connection between two sides of the heart."

Hussain says it means Letang's heart hole never closed, along with so many other people's hearts.

"Once you're born, most of the time, it shuts. It closes up and seals up because you don't need it anymore at that point," Hussain said. "Interestingly, if you do an ultrasound on the heart of everyone walking on the street, about one in five people will have this hole in the heart."

When news broke Wednesday of Letang's stroke at the age of 35, Hussain didn't feel the shock. He sees the patients daily.

"Because we're a center that sees a lot of patients, when we looked at our numbers, we have 40 percent of our patients under the age of 55," the doctor said. "Now we tend to get a lot of referrals so that may be part of it. But if you look broadly at strokes in general, it's probably about 20-25 percent happen under the age of 55."

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall said Letang mentioned a migraine headache this week to the team trainers and just knew something "wasn't right."

"Kris actually came into the room and wants to assure everyone he's doing as well as possible and there's no lingering effects right now," Hextall said.

At just 35 years old and in top physical shape, Letang and the team do not think this will threaten his career in any way. But he now joins the 185,000 Americans suffering repeat strokes, according to the CDC.

So since Letang didn't know he was having a stroke, it's up to other people around him to push him to get help. Medical experts said to follow the "BE FAST" acronym. 

"So "B" stands for balance," Hussain said. "If there's any difficulty with balance. Then "E," standing for eyes, so trouble with the vision, the loss of vision or disturbance of vision. Then "F," standing for face, if there's droopiness on one side of the face or the other. "A," standing for arm, meaning weakness or difficulty moving an arm. And then "S," standing for speech, difficulty speaking or getting your words out. Then we put the "T" in there as time. That's the time to call 911 because it's really important that people seek medical attention."

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