Illness in the Oval Office
From heart failure to depression, U.S. presidents have experienced common health problems. Our first 10 war-hero presidents brought a history of illness to the White House, including dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever. Later, many of our leaders attempted to hide their ailing health from the public, making health both a medical and a political issue.
Take a look through history and learn about the health issues of the men in the Oval Office.
The seventh president suffered from emotional and physical maladies. When the 62-year-old was inaugurated, he was remarkably thin, and had just lost his wife to a heart attack. He suffered from rotting teeth, chronic headaches, failing eyesight, bleeding in his lungs, internal infection, and pain from two bullet wounds from two separate duels.
Cleveland was the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, and suffered throughout his life with obesity, gout, and nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). When he discovered a tumor in his mouth, he underwent surgery to remove part of his jaw and hard palate. He recovered but ultimately died of a heart attack after his retirement in 1908.
At one point weighing over 300 pounds, Taft was obese. Through aggressive dieting, he lost nearly 100 pounds, which he continually gained and lost throughout his lifetime. Taft’s weight initiated sleep apnea, which disrupted his sleep and caused him to be tired during the day and sometimes sleep through important political meetings. Due to his excess weight, he also had high blood pressure and heart problems.
Along with hypertension, headaches, and double vision, Wilson experienced a series of strokes. These strokes affected his right hand, leaving him unable to write normally for a year. More strokes rendered Wilson blind in his left eye, paralyzing his left side and forcing him into a wheelchair. He kept his paralysis a secret. Once discovered, it instigated the 25th Amendment, which states that the vice president will take power upon the president’s death, resignation, or disability.
The 24th president lived with many mental disorders. Between 1889 and 1891, Harding spent time in a sanitarium to recover from fatigue and nervous illnesses. His mental health took a serious toll on his physical health, causing him to gain an excessive amount of weight and experience insomnia and exhaustion. He developed heart failure and died suddenly and unexpectedly after a game of golf in 1923.
At the age of 39, the FDR experienced a severe attack of polio, resulting in total paralysis of both legs. He funded extensive polio research, which led to the creation of its vaccine. One of Roosevelt’s main health problems began in 1944, when he started showing signs of anorexia and weight loss. In 1945, Roosevelt experienced a severe pain in his head, which was diagnosed as a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He died shortly after.
The 34th president endured three major medical crises during his two terms in office: heart attack, stroke, and Crohn’s disease. Eisenhower instructed his press secretary to inform the public of his condition after his heart attack in 1955. Six months before the election of 1956, Eisenhower was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and underwent surgery, from which he recovered. One year later, the president had a mild stroke, which he was able to overcome.
Although this young president projected youth and vitality, he was in fact hiding a life-threatening disease. Even through his short term, Kennedy chose to keep secret his 1947 diagnosis of Addison’s disease — an incurable disorder of the adrenal glands. Due to chronic back pain and anxiety, he developed an addiction to painkillers, stimulants, and antianxiety medication.
Reagan was the oldest man to seek the presidency and was considered by some to be medically unfit for the position. He struggled constantly with poor health. Reagan experienced urinary tract infections (UTIs), underwent removal of prostate stones, and developed temporomandibular joint disease (TMJ) and arthritis. In 1987, he had operations for prostate and skin cancers. He also lived with Alzheimer’s disease. His wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and one of his daughters died from skin cancer.
The senior George Bush almost died as a teenager from a staph infection. As a naval aviator, Bush was exposed to head and lung trauma. Throughout his lifetime, he developed several bleeding ulcers, arthritis, and various cysts. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation due to hyperthyroidism and, like his wife and family dog, was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Graves’ disease.