Hollywood actor, Alan Thicke’s death was caused by an acute aortic dissection. This is the same cause of death that led to the tragic loss of life of fellow Hollywood comedian and actor, John Ritter over 13 years ago in Los Angeles. An aortic dissection occurs when there is a tear in the wall of the aorta, the major artery coming out of the heart. The tear allows the blood to ‘dissect’ from inside the lumen of the aorta into the wall. As the dissection progresses, the wall is torn apart and weakened, leading to aortic rupture and sudden death.
Alan Thicke complained of chest pains while playing hockey on December 13th. His chest pains were most likely due to the acute tear in the aorta and the subsequent aortic dissection. His dissected aorta ruptured three hours later causing his death.
Much is written about how the flaw in the aorta that leads to dissection is “undetectable” and “untreatable.” However, many people of the 25,000 people a year who die of aortic disease can be diagnosed before the dissection, and treated so that a dissection is prevented. Typically, there is a widening or ballooning out of the aorta, called an aneurysm, before the dissection occurs. These aneurysms progressively grow larger without symptoms. While people can live with a growing aneurysm for years, when a dissection occurs, it often kills quickly within a matter of hours. If the aneurysm is detected, it can be surgically repaired to prevent a dissection.
Genetic syndromes like Marfan, Loeys-Dietz and vascular Ehlers Danlos syndrome can predispose an individual to aortic dissection. If you have a family member who has had an aortic dissection, it is a red flag that other family members may also be at risk for an aortic dissection. After John Ritter’s death, his family members had imaging to determine if they had an undetected aneurysm. John’s brother did have an aneurysm. He had it surgically repaired, and is alive and well today. Finally, if you have a heart defect called a bicuspid aortic valve you are at an increased risk for an aortic dissection.
Alan Thicke was born in Ontario, Canada and enjoyed a lengthy career in both Canada and the United States. He also worked as a songwriter and talk show host.
The Genetic Aortic Disorders Association of Canada is working to increase awareness of the risk factors for acute aortic dissections and support individuals and families with a predisposition for aortic dissections to prevent these dissections and the premature deaths associated with these events.
Everyone at GADA Canada are deeply saddened by the passing of Alan and sends our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.
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