Alan Thicke, who played the loving and comical father in Growing Pains, died suddenly on December 13 at the age of 69 while playing ice hockey with his son Carter, who is 19 years old. Although no autopsy was performed, the cause of death listed on his death certificate was a ruptured aorta, which is the same condition that killed popular actor John Ritter in 2003, according to USA Today.
Thicke developed an aortic tear three hours before his aorta ruptured. The aorta is the main artery that carries blood from the heart to other parts of the body, so a large rupture almost always results in massive hemorrhage that leads to death quickly. Small tears can be treated more successfully if caught in time.
Thicke was popular in both Canada and the United States for his charm, wit, and humor in his acting roles, and he had reportedly been in good health prior to the aortic rupture that killed him just as he hit retirement age.
While an aortic tear is not as common as a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or cerebrovascular accident (stroke), which are both leading causes of sudden death in men, it is not as uncommon as people may think, and there are several risk factors and warning signs that people should be aware of.
According to Medline Plus, an aortic rupture occurs because of an aortic dissection, which means a portion of the blood vessel becomes weakened and splits open. This can be a small or large split, and size determines the severity of symptoms and the prognosis. People can and do survive aortic dissections, but usually not if they are large. When the aorta tears, the massive bleeding causes a sudden drop in blood pressure as blood fills up the thoracic cavity, which causes ischemia, or lack of oxygenation, to vital organs such as the brain. Without immediate intervention, death rapidly occurs.
There are several risk factors for an aortic tear, and they are some of the same that are common for a heart attack. This includes plaque in the arteries, hypertension (high blood pressure) and actual malformations of the heart that may be present from birth. Chest trauma can also lead to aortic rupture, such as would occur with a heavy impact into a steering wheel during a motor vehicle accident. As far as has been reported, Thicke suffered no traumatic injury prior to his death.
In most cases that are not caused by traumatic injury, symptoms can begin in a more gradual manner, leaving many people to believe they are having a heart attack because they have chest pain. Chest pain should always be considered a medical emergency and investigated by a physician. Pain can be described as sharp, stabbing, or tearing and may be particularly sharp underneath the clavicle. People may experience weakness, fainting, loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing, or blood coming from the mouth. Severe back pain is not uncommon.
Less than half of people survive an aortic rupture, although it can be survived with appropriate treatment such as open heart surgery if the condition is diagnosed and treated in time and other life-threatening conditions (such as lack of oxygen to the brain) have not developed.
According to Medical Xpress, approximately 40,000 to 50,000 die in the United States each year because of aortic rupture, although some physicians believe that number may be higher because many cases are not properly diagnosed, especially if they occurred as part of a multiple trauma such as a fall or motor vehicle accident, in which several organs could have been damaged.
Although Thicke, Ritter, and countless others died due to aortic rupture, the condition can be treated if caught in time, but speed is of the essence.
[Featured Image by Mark Mainz/Getty Images]