President Barack Obama knows a thing or two about fitness. Photographers have snapped him playing golf in Hawaii on Christmas Eve, doing impromptu pull-ups before giving a speech in Montana, and even playing a game of pick-up basketball on Election Day. His love of these sports, coupled with his well-documented gym habits and disciplined diet, has led the media to herald Obama as the new face of presidential health.
But, as SRxA’s Word on Health has learned, not all American presidents have been such model specimens of health. Some of them, far from it. In fact, disease, injury, and destructive habits have run rampant in the 43 commanders-in-chief.
To mark this President’s Day we decided take a look at some the least healthy presidents in American history.
James Monroe, the Fifth President (1817-1825) was shot with a bullet during the Battle of Trenton. To save his life, a doctor stuck his index finger into the wound to stop Monroe from bleeding out. In 1785, Monroe contracted malaria while visiting a swampy area of the Mississippi River. Sporadic feverish flare-ups plagued him for years afterwards.
In 1830, Monroe developed a chronic lung illness that crippled him for several months, leaving him with labored breathing, fever, night sweats, and a nagging cough that sometimes had him spitting up blood. Though never officially diagnosed his symptoms are strongly suggestive of tuberculosis.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President (1901-1909) was a frail and sickly child. In the hope of alleviating his asthma and other ailments Roosevelt was encouraged to do lots of physical activity. Boxing became one of his favorite hobbies. However, after being elected to the White House, he suffered a blow to his left eye resulting in a detached retina which left him blind on that side. Later he also lost the hearing in his left ear as a result of surgery necessitated by a middle ear infection
Roosevelt then contracted malaria and suffered an infected leg wound during an expedition into the Amazon rainforest. These injuries resulted in chest pains, high fever, and delirium. Though he didn’t die, he returned to America in a decrepit physical state, and was often unable to leave his bed for years afterwards.
Ronald Reagan, the 40th President (1981-1989) had many well documented health problems. Just like Roosevelt, these included hearing and sight issues. Reagan was so nearsighted that he was disqualified from serving during World War II. Later, when he got glasses, he was surprised to see that trees had leaves – something he’d never known before.
Reagan used a hearing aid in his right ear early in his presidency but later started wearing one in his left ear. It’s been speculated that his hearing was damaged during his early years as a Hollywood actor, when he was exposed to repeated loud gunshot during the filming of his Western movies.
Other health problems included multiple urinary tract infections, prostate stones, colon tumors and skin cancers. Finally, though he was famous for having a near-photographic memory during his prime, Reagan’s memory deteriorated when he hit his 70s, and he would sometimes forget the names of key staffers and visiting dignitaries. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1994.
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President (1913-1921) suffered from hypertension, headaches, double-vision and multiple strokes throughout adulthood. His third stroke, in 1906, left him blind in his left eye. Finally, in 1919, the president suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side and forced him into a wheelchair. Wilson decided to keep his condition a secret from the public, so isolated himself in the White House, where for the last 3 years of his term his wife Edith made all presidential decisions for him.
, the 34th President (1953-1961) was a four-pack-a-day smoker. He also suffered from Crohn’s disease and gallstones, both of which required surgery. In 1955 Eisenhower suffered a heart attack so severe that his cardiologist advised the president not to run for a second term. Eisenhower ignored his advice, ran, and was reelected. His second term was marred by even more heart trouble: during a five-month span in 1968, he suffered four heart attacks and 14 cardiac arrests. These weakened him to the point where he could only be out of bed for 45 minutes a day, and he died the next year.
John F. Kennedy, 35th President (1961-1963) is remembered as a glamorous, tragic playboy, assassinated too young. What’s less well know is the litany of health problems he suffered throughout his life.
Kennedy’s childhood was riddled with health issues. At 2 years old, he contracted measles, whooping cough, chickenpox and then scarlet fever, which almost killed him. Later in his childhood, he frequently had upper respiratory infections and bronchitis, as well as allergies, frequent colds, asthma.
While studying at Harvard, Kennedy contracted urethritis, an inflammation of the urethra that results in painful urination. As he failed to seek immediate treatment, this became a chronic problem for many years.
After years of suffering back pains, Kennedy was diagnosed at age 30 with Addison’s disease, a rare endocrine disorder that generally results in fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, and bronzing of the skin. Kennedy was so ill that he was given the last rites and physicians speculated that he would die within the year. However, steroid therapy and experimental medicinal implants of hormones, animal organ cells, vitamins, enzymes, pain killers and amphetamines and kept him alive. Then in 1966, he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. The presence of two endocrine diseases raises the possibility that Kennedy had autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type 2 (APS 2).
We wish all our readers a Happy and Healthy President’s Day.