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Actor Burt Lancaster suffered from two ‘major’ conditions before death – ‘Steep decline’

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Four years prior to his death, Lancaster suffered from a stroke, while visiting a friend in Orange County, USA. The serious incident proved the last in a series of physical maladies that had befallen the star who appeared in more than 70 films. Having always been proud of his body, physically, health wise it has let him down on numerous occasions. As written in The Telegraph: “By the time Lancaster starred as a small town doctor in the sentimental baseball movie Field of Dreams, his health was in steep decline”.

Firstly, due to a long habit of chain smoking, the star developed heart disease. The Mayo Clinic explains that heart disease describes a range of conditions that affect the heart, it includes:

  • Blood vessel disease, such as coronary artery disease
  • Irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias)
  • Heart problems you’re born with (congenital heart defects)
  • Disease of the heart muscle
  • Heart valve disease.

The type of heart disease an individual has causes varying different symptoms, but the main symptoms that individuals can expect include:

  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain throughout the body
  • Feeling faint
  • Feeling sick (nausea).

Coronary heart disease, as the NHS explains, is caused by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries, interrupting the heart’s blood supply. Over time, the walls of these arteries can become furred up with fatty deposits.

This process is known as atherosclerosis and the fatty deposits are called atheroma. Importantly to note in Lancaster’s case, atherosclerosis can be caused by lifestyle factors, such as smoking and regularly drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

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Due to his heart condition and the damage smoking had caused to his vital organs, Lancaster underwent multiple coronary artery bypass surgery in 1983. But despite treatments he continued to suffer from the heart condition.

Coronary bypass surgery aims to redirect blood around a section of a blocked or partially blocked artery in the heart. The procedure involves taking a healthy blood vessel from an individual’s leg, arm or chest and connecting it below and above the blocked arteries in the heart. With this new pathway, blood flow to the heart muscle improves.

Although bypass surgery does not cure the causes of heart disease, it can help to ease symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath.

Suffering with heart disease, in September 1990 Lancaster then suffered from a stroke, which left him partially paralysed, only a few months after he had married television production co-ordinator Susan Scherer.

Similarly to heart disease, a stroke is a “serious life-threatening medical condition” that occurs when the blood supply to a part of the brain is cut off. Due to the severity of the condition, treatment is essential and needed straight away.

The NHS notes that the sooner a person receives treatment for a stroke, the less damage is likely to happen. It is therefore important that individuals recognise the signs and symptoms of a stroke to help anyone suffering.

The main symptoms of stroke can be remembered with the word FAST:

  • Face – the face may have dropped on one side, the person may not be able to smile, or their mouth or eye may have dropped.
  • Arms – the person with suspected stroke may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there because of weakness or numbness in one arm.
  • Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled, or the person may not be able to talk at all despite appearing to be awake; they may also have problems understanding what you’re saying to them.
  • Time – it’s time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms.

Treatment for a stroke depends on the type of stroke an individual has, including which part of the brain was affected and what caused it. The NHS explains that there are two main causes of strokes:

  1. Ischaemic – where the blood supply is stopped because of a blood clot, accounting for 85 percent of all cases
  2. Haemorrhagic – where a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts.

Strokes are usually treated with medication. This includes medicines to prevent and dissolve blood clots, reduce blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels.

However, in some cases, procedures may be required to remove blood clots. Surgery may also be required to treat brain swelling and reduce the risk of further bleeding if this was the cause of the stroke.

Although the condition is usually unpredictable, the NHS notes that some individuals are more at risk of suffering from a stroke due to certain lifestyle factors and pre-diagnosed conditions. These include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol
  • Irregular heart beats (atrial fibrillation)
  • Diabetes.

Due to this, individuals are advised to follow a healthy diet, take regular exercise, not drink more than 14 units a week and not smoke for the best chance to prevent having a stroke.

For those that survive, the injury to the brain caused after a stroke can lead to widespread and long-lasting problems. Although some people may recover quickly, many people who have a stroke need long-term support to help them regain as much independence as possible.

Two of the most common psychological problems that can affect people after a stroke are:
Depression – many people experience intense bouts of crying, feel hopeless and withdraw from social activities
Anxiety – where people experience general feelings of fear and anxiety, sometimes with moments of intense, uncontrolled feelings of anxiety (anxiety attacks).

On learning about his death, Lancaster’s friend Kirk Douglas, rightly said: “You know, Burt isn’t really dead… People years from now will still be seeing us shooting at each other… still watching him in his many other great films. At least he’s at peace now.”

“Burt was not just an actor,” Douglas added. “He was a curious intellectual with an abiding love of opera who was constantly in search of unique characters to portray… Elmer Gantry… the Birdman of Alcatraz.”

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