John F. Kennedy has long been seen as one of most charismatic, robust U.S. leaders. He was often photographed outside, cheeks ruddy, hair blowing in the breeze, the picture of health. Recently, however, it has come to light that he suffered from various debilitating health conditions. His cheerful and glowing demeanor hid multiple conditions for which he took an array of prescription medicines. Perhaps the most debilitating of his health problems was Addison’s disease.

Addison’s disease is a disease of the adrenal glands that is diagnosed when the glands do not produce enough of their own hormones. These adrenal hormones help maintain blood sugar, suppress the body’s immune response, and help the body deal with stress. Symptoms of Addison’s disease include chronic nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, paleness overall with dark patches on the skin, changes in blood pressure and heart rate, and general sluggishness.

Contrast those symptoms with what the public saw of Kennedy and you cannot help but wonder: how did he maintain the illusion vigorous health?

A new presidential biographer, Robert Dallek, reveals that JFK dealt with his health issues with continual and increasing doses of pain medicines and steroids. In addition to Addison’s disease, President Kennedy suffered from crippling back pain, colitis, and stomach ulcers. At one point, daily treatment for the president included steroids for his Addison’s disease; painkillers for his back; anti-spasmodics for his colitis; antibiotics for urinary-tract infections; antihistamines for allergies; and, on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic for a brief episode in which the president’s mood fluctuated so wildly that his wife, Jackie, became concerned. At various points in his life, this was a daily reality for him.

Prescription medicine was the way that JFK’s doctors opted to treat him, and some might argue that the overprescription of medicine (and the side effects that come with that), may have also contributed to his health issues.

John F. Kennedy lived with chronic pain due to various illnesses and diseases. He was determined to not let them decide his fate, however, and continued to portray the picture of vitality to the U.S. people. The medicines he took daily became a mask for his deeper health problems.

It was so important to Kennedy and his team that he appear to be youthful, healthy, and confident that daily injections and medications were crucial to keep up that image. Kennedy himself brushed off concerns about the amount of medicine he was taking, saying, at one point, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”  That statement depends on how “works” is defined. President Kennedy was held hostage by the medicines he took, and his conditions were not improved by the end of his life.

Today’s presidents undergo physical exams and announce the results to the nation; do you think that a president’s medical records should be public knowledge?

Image by U.S. Embassy New Delhi via Flickr


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