January 23, 2017

President John F. Kennedy vs. Addison

JFK with Addison's Disease by Flickr Ken's Aviation

The medical term for adrenal insufficiency is Addison’s Disease, which refers to the inadequate production of hormones from the adrenal glands due to an underlying disease.

President John F. Kennedy had Addison’s Disease, but the Annals of Internal Medicine have determined the underlying cause of JFK’s adrenal gland insufficiency as probably a rare autoimmune disease.

At first, abdominal pain was diagnosed in his youth as colitis, then back surgery caused chronic pain. Eventually, after many prescribed pain medications, sleeping pills, steroid and hormone injections, JFK was properly diagnosed with Addison’s Disease.

Addison’s disease is characterized by the withering of the adrenal glands, which make corticosteroids and other hormones that are used for salt metabolism, response to stress and response to inflammation. Symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, muscle weakness, weight loss, difficulty standing up, nausea, sweating and changes in mood and personality.

Kennedy had to receive daily steroid injections to survive, to stimulate muscle growth and stimulate his appetite.  The steroids themselves have side effects, including susceptibility to infection: urinary, skin and respiratory infections came as a result.  Overall, JFK took a host of drugs during his presidency.

Kennedy worried about the effects on his appearance of the steroids he took as treatment for Addison Disease. The steroids made his face look puffy and made him look overweight.

Four days before his inauguration, Kennedy caught sight of himself in a mirror and declared, “My God, look at that fat face, if I don’t lose five pounds this week we might have to call off the Inauguration.”

Though during the JFK campaign in 1960, Kennedy denied he had Addison’s Disease. Classic Addison’s Disease has been caused by tuberculosis. Since John F. Kennedy never suffered from tuberculosis of any kind, he and his spokespersons maintained that he did not have Addison’s Disease, in the classic sense.

There was substantial secrecy surrounding his health during his years as president. Later, John F. Kennedy maintained that his adrenal insufficiency was a side effect of the malaria he contracted after the war. But after his death, those that examined his medical records have concluded that he had a secondary form of the disease, which was slow deterioration of the adrenal glands from the autoimmune disease hypothyroidism, rather than a rapid destruction.  Adrenal insufficiency, no matter how caused, is a serious matter.

Rather than adversely affecting him politically, John F. Kennedy’s physical ailments vitally contributed to the development of his character and to the formation of his political personality. He proved his worth and demonstrated his strength by rising above all others, even with Addison’s Disease.

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