Ralph Sacco, Neurologist and AHA Past President, Dies of Brain Cancer

(UPDATED) Sacco, the first neurologist to hold down the post of president at the AHA, died of an aggressive brain tumor.

Ralph Sacco, Neurologist and AHA Past President, Dies of Brain Cancer

Photo Credit: University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

(UPDATED) Ralph Sacco, the first neurologist to serve as American Heart Association (AHA) president and the long-time editor-in-chief of Stroke, died today of an aggressive brain tumor, the AHA announced. Sacco was 65.

His former mentor and friend, Jay P. Mohr (Columbia University, New York, NY), called him a valiant “resistor” to the cancer that ultimately took his life. “During much of the time that he had the known brain tumor, he continued to perform at a very high level as editor of the journal Stroke and director of the neurology program at the University of Miami,” Mohr told TCTMD. “Probably because the tumor affected the side of the brain that was not dominant for speech and language, he was able to carry out all this activity right up to the end.”

According to a profile published in the Lancet in 2010, Sacco was “born into a family of two generations of successful restaurateurs” in Atlantic City, NJ. He completed his first degree in bioelectrical engineering at Cornell University, NY, and his medical degree at Boston University, MA, where he worked with Philip A. Wolf, MD, on the Framingham Heart Study. It was via an introduction from Wolf that Sacco came to study with Mohr, completing his neurology residency, as well as a master’s degree in epidemiology, at Columbia University.

“I think that Phil Wolf and I were his foster uncles,” Mohr said. “When Ralph came to New York, first as an intern at [St. Luke’s] Roosevelt, I got a telephone call from Phil saying: I have a guy I'm going to send to you, and I think you'll be glad that I did.”

Wolf, speaking with TCTMD Wednesday, called Sacco “a dynamo, a wonderful, engaging person” who would return from his summer vacations bringing Wolf an enormous, subway sandwich from his father’s New Jersey restaurant. Sacco authored so many papers during med school in Boston, said Wolf, that when his former student started his internship in New York, people presumed he had a father with the same initials who was also a neurologist and prolific researcher “who’d written all these great papers.”

Wolf, who kept in touch with Sacco over more than four decades, said “there's so many things to talk about, but it's important to just point out what a great person he was, a wonderful doctor, and a fine investigator. It’s hard to say enough.”

At the time of his death, Sacco was professor and Olemberg Chair of Neurology at the University of Miami, executive director at the McKnight Brain Institute, chief of neurology at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and director at the University of Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

I think that's a model for all of us to incorporate into our lives, to live each piece in full. Nancy Brown

With a long-standing interest in “brain health,” as he called it, as well as epidemiology and later genetics and transcriptional medicine, Sacco was the principal investigator of the 26-year National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke-funded Northern Manhattan Study, the Florida Puerto Rico Collaboration to Reduce Stroke Disparities, and the Family Study of Stroke Risk and Carotid Atherosclerosis. He also served as co-investigator on multiple other National Institutes of Health grants. 

Mohr, singling out the Northern Manhattan Study, called it “a model for most epidemiology studies in the world.”

As the AHA statement notes, Sacco was recognized with numerous accolades over his lifetime, including the 2022 Distinguished Scientist, the 2015 Gold Heart Award, the 2011 Distinguished National Leadership Award, and the 2006 William Feinberg Award.

His contributions, however, went even further, Nancy Brown, AHA/American Stroke Association CEO, told TCTMD. “If you were to read about Ralph, you’d read about his incredible scientific accomplishments, his multifaceted and multidimensional way that he was able to bring that science into practice to benefit patients as an epidemiologist and as a stroke neurologist, but a person who really focused a lot on prevention,” Brown said. “But behind all that was this incredibly compassionate human being. I know this firsthand because he helped me when my sister had a stroke at age 56 from undiagnosed atrial fibrillation. The level of care and compassion that he had for his patients and for people who needed his help and support is unlike anything I've ever seen. His kind, caring, and deep way that he went about impacting people's lives really made a difference.”

More than just a physician, Brown continued, Sacco was an excellent cook who loved art and architecture and lived every day to its fullest. “I think that's a model for all of us to incorporate into our lives,” she said, “to live each piece in full.”

Mitchell Elkind, MD, chief clinical science officer for the AHA, who was a fellow of Sacco’s at Columbia and later became the next neurologist to take the helm at the AHA, remembered Sacco as “just a wonderful person. He was warm, he was humble, he was funny, and so I think, as for many others, he became not just a mentor, but a friend and really an advocate for me throughout my career.”

Sacco leaves behind his husband, Scott Dutcher, his father, and his four siblings.

The statement issued by the AHA extended “heartfelt condolences to Dr. Sacco’s spouse Scott Dutcher, family and loved ones, and the many patients, colleagues, and friends who were fortunate to experience his exceptional love for and service to humanity.”

Elkind highlighted Sacco’s efforts to improve diversity in medicine, research, and education, noting that when he became the editor-in-chief of Stroke, Sacco “dedicated himself to increasing diversity on the editorial board,” by setting strict targets and then working hard to find people to bring more-diverse representation.

He was warm, he was humble, he was funny. Mitchell Elkind

“I suspect that some of that humility that he brought to that process, his desire to bring in people who have been underrepresented in many ways, probably came from the sense, earlier in his career, that he was a little bit outside the mainstream, in some ways,” Elkind continued. “So he brought that sensitivity to his attempts to grow the field later when he was in the position to do so.”

Mohr, too, said he “considers himself lucky” to have mentored and collaborated with Sacco over the course of his career. “We're going to miss him, and so is the field of stroke research. What I'm hoping is that the American Heart Association has the good sense to create a foundation in his name that can serve as a funding mechanism for future stars like him, so that the American Heart Association can be proud to say: we, too, played a role in their development.”

Asked about this, Brown said that Sacco himself had expressed this hope to her personally—that a tradition of focusing on brain health, stroke prevention, and mentoring continue after his death. “It is our desire to do that work in his honor, together with the American Academy of Neurology,” she said, adding: “more to come.”

Shelley Wood is Managing Editor of TCTMD and the Editorial Director at CRF. She did her undergraduate degree at McGill…

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