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A Strange Stroke of Luck: A Man Who Can No Longer Feel Sad

A Strange Stroke of Luck: A Man Who Can No Longer Feel Sad

A British man who almost ten years ago suffered a devestating stroke has, despite the seriousness of his condition, found cause to smile: namely because he is now incapable of feeling sadness. How does this happen, and why must we be sure not to forget the more usual outcomes stroke patients suffer?

Malcolm Myatt, 68, reportedly had a stroke in 2004 that put him in the hospital for 19 weeks and left him without much feeling on his left side. Doctors later told him he had suffered damage to the frontal lobe of his brain which, among other characteristics, controls our emotions.

Since then, Myatt has had to adjust to life with short term memory loss, limited mobility in his left arm and difficulty in walking, among several other symptoms. He has done all this, however, with a smile. That’s because, through a highly unusual turn of events, the stroke has in fact left him unable to feel sadness or depression. Now, it isn’t unusual for stroke victims to suffer an inability to control their emotions, but a total loss of  a particular set of emotions is unusual.

The retired lorry driver from England is quoted as saying, “I am never depressed. Being sad wouldn’t help anything anyway. I would definitely rather be happy all the time than the other way round. It’s an advantage really. The stroke could have become my worst enemy but I wouldn’t let it. Now I barely even notice that I don’t feel sadness.”

Myatt’s wife, Kath, does note in what appear fond comments that he is often “childish,” always telling jokes and even that he is unable to be serious.

Dr. Clare Walton, of the Stroke Association, is quoted as saying that while this is unusual, it isn’t entirely unprecedented: “While we haven’t heard before of stroke survivors completely losing the ability to feel a particular emotion, many find it very difficult to control their emotions and may cry or laugh at inappropriate times.”

While this has been treated as a feelgood story, it should be noted that as a result of Mr. Myatt’s stroke, he is now in the early stages of vascular dementia, something he obviously won’t recover from. The story does serve, though, as a platform to discuss the serious issue of strokes.

Strokes occur when the supply of blood to the brain is restricted or stopped, leading to brain cells dying and sometimes is fatal. Strokes are classed as a medical emergency and, according to the American Heart Association, they are the number four cause of death and the leading cause of disability in the USA.

Strokes can be caused either by a clot obstructing the flow of blood to the brain, termed an ischemic stroke, or by a blood vessel rupture that in turn prevents blood flow to the brain, known as a hemorrhagic stroke. There are also events called transient ischemic attacks or TIAs, a temporary clot that results in a so-called “mini stroke,” which is often less damaging but still serious.

The results of a stroke often depend on the areas of the brain that are affected, with a stroke near the brain stem being potentially the most devastating as it could impact both sides of the brain.

It is true that some people can be incredibly lucky and survive a stroke with only minimal and perhaps even no long term effects. More often, however, strokes lead to paralysis on one side of the body (sometimes both), vision problems, memory loss and, if occurring on the right side of the brain, speech or language problems. In most cases, a stroke will mean the person suffers a mild to marked change in personality. While over several years some stroke victims will see an improvement in their condition, they will not recover. The key, then, is to prevent a stroke.

No matter age, race, gender or lifestyle, anyone can suffer a stroke, but there are groups of people that are more susceptible. According to the National Stroke Association, these include being over the age of 55, being male, or being African American,  Hispanic or Asian. Having a family history of stroke or TIA is also classed as an uncontrollable risk factor.

Among those elements of stroke risk that are controllable are having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, circulation problems, tobacco use and smoking, alcohol use, physical inactivity and obesity.

We may be tired of hearing it but eating a balanced diet or primarily fresh unprocessed foods and doing frequent moderate exercise can all help with these risk factors and therein decrease the likelihood of a stroke.

As happy as Mr. Myatt apparently is, for it would seem he has no choice but to be so, his case also serves to show us that it is not just stroke victims that must deal with the effects of a stroke, but that it also has an impact on family members who must in turn often make considerable and even radical changes to their own lives in order to support and care for the stroke victim.

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Image credit: Thinkstock.

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9:15AM PST on Nov 6, 2013

Maybe he realized that life is not worth getting sad about, especially if you can't remember recent problems (potential worries) too well and he has someone who loves him and helps take care of him. And it helps as well if he is retired (and has benefits so he doesn't have to be homeless). Why add trauma to an ailing self in what you have left of life? At that point he may certainly feel there are consequences to being upset, angry, sad, etc. Maybe he also values the gains in mobility he has experienced since the accident, perhaps once having believed that things would have been worse by now. Finally, some of the neural damage might have killed off some of the neurons that get triggered repeatedly to run though "worry cycles" (eg, "oh oh, the dog peed on the carpet, now we have to go clean up and so I will be late to this and blah blah blah).

I think we can all improve our view of life by trimming some of the worry "fat".

8:21AM PDT on Aug 20, 2013

Despite the fact that he is alive and doesn't feel sadness it's quite obvious how our brain works.

6:51AM PDT on Aug 20, 2013

Man I wish I was incapable of feeling sadness. A stroke can cause all sorts of strange side effects that aren't life destroying.

9:25PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013


1:35PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

Hmmm actually makes me appreciate duality ...

10:34AM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

For the first half of the article, I couldn't help thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder if someone could do this to me?" and then the practical aspects surfaced. This gentleman's wife says he has a hard time being serious, he's so jovial and happy all the time. His behaviour could at times be very hurtful to others -- for example, at a funeral -- when it is permissible (although not obligatory) to feel pain, sadness and grief. His condition will also make it likely impossible to empathize with others, which is the saddest part of the story. I just found it interesting to come across a real-life situation where being happy all the time isn't necessarily a good thing.

6:40AM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

Interesting. Thanks.

6:25AM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

Interesting article. He's fortunate to have family to take care of him. I could do without some sadness every now and then, but don't think I want to have a stroke to eradicate the feeling totally.

5:21AM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

Bitter-sweet story, I suppose. Makes you think with all the problems we have; sometimes we have to count it all joy and count our blessings.

4:41AM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

Thanks for info

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