Every Health Secret John F. Kennedy Kept From Americans During His Presidency
John F. Kennedy still stands as one of the most beloved presidents of the U.S. whose life was taken far too soon. But like many other politicians, Kennedy led a secretive life that the public barely knew about — and it all had to do with his failing health.
ABC News explains Kennedy dealt with severe health problems since he was a child, which ranged from bodily aches and pains to full-blown diseases that fully developed later in life. Here are all the conditions he hid through his presidency, including the one that gave him severe pain for years (No. 9).
1. High fevers
Fevers were one of Kennedy’s earliest indications that he was having severe health problems. The Atlantic reports as a 2-year-old, he suffered from a bad case of scarlet fever and had to be hospitalized for months — and it didn’t end there. In 1945, about 15 years before his presidency, friends of his in San Francisco said he looked “sickly,” and it was commonplace for him to have a fever accompanied with nausea and vomiting.
By 1957, the frequent fevers hadn’t let up either. And during the first six months of his term, he was also experiencing them with his other ailments.
Next: This part of his body plagued him throughout his lifetime.
2. Severe stomach problems
The Atlantic notes Kennedy was hospitalized frequently for issues relating to his stomach. It’s likely he had stomach ulcers, which could have been anywhere on his stomach lining, esophagus, or small intestine. It was also reported that he took antispasmodics to deal with the cramping and severe aches he had through his presidency.
Kennedy was known to apply heat 15 minutes a day to help with his pain, too, though little could be done to truly cure the issue. His troubles also led to significant weight loss.
Next: Not only did he have trouble with his stomach, but he also had issues relating to a similar part of the body.
3. Colon problems and colitis
His colon problems and stomach issues likely went hand in hand. Like his stomach pain, Kennedy also had a long history of diarrhea and issues relating to his intestinal tract, making plenty of doctors believe he had colitis, or inflammation in the colon, says The Atlantic.
Kennedy was given corticosteroids to help him in the 1930s, but long-term use may have contributed to even bigger health issues later in life, particularly with his bones and immune system.
Next: Kennedy may have developed this issue from a sexually transmitted disease.
4. Prostate inflammation
Prostate issues are extremely common for men — and Kennedy was no different. The Atlantic explains that over time, Kennedy developed chronic prostatitis, which is inflammation of the prostate gland. He first noticed something was amiss in the ’40s when he felt a burning sensation while urinating — and it’s suspected he may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease or infection that led to this chronic condition later on.
Sulfa drugs provided temporary relief for him, but like his back and colon, the pain and discomfort still plagued him through the years.
Next: He had to have a painful procedure done to take care of this.
5. Abscesses in his back
Due to his intestinal issues, Kennedy took steroids to deal with the pain — but that may have led to this next ailment. The New York Times reports historian Robert Dallek says the president’s vertebrae may have been degenerating from the steroid usage he began in the 1930s. As a result, in 1954, doctors fused Kennedy’s degenerated vertebrae with a metal plate — but an abscess caused doctors to then remove it. Other abscesses also formed in his back, some of which were surgically drained.
Next: We now know just how high Kennedy’s cholesterol really was.
6. High cholesterol
Perhaps Kennedy could have avoided many of his ailments if doctors caught his high cholesterol, but no one can say for sure. The New York Times notes his cholesterol levels were usually in the 300 range, though they once reached the level of 410. Today, we know that’s twice as much as what’s considered healthy, as your levels should be in the low 200s.
Kennedy took testosterone to help with his weight and muscle loss, which may have contributed to his extremely high levels as well.
Next: Kennedy was finally diagnosed with this ailment over time.
7. Addison’s disease
Kennedy flat-out denied he had Addison’s disease for a number of years, but doctors can now confirm that the president did have this condition, which may have contributed to a variety of his other ailments.
The Los Angeles Times explains Addison’s disease causes problems with the adrenal glands, which make a variety of hormones, such as adrenaline. It typically develops from another autoimmune disorder, though 20% of cases also result from tuberculosis. And it can cause severely uncomfortable symptoms, like muscle weakness, weight loss, nausea, sweating, and mood swings.
Next: If you’ve ever had this type of infection, you know how painful it is.
8. Urinary tract infections
Kennedy was no stranger to infections, and he reportedly suffered from UTIs, too, TIME reports. This forced him to take antibiotics with frequency, as he developed urinary tract infections on and off throughout his lifetime.
While UTIs can be easily treated, they can be potentially deadly if they go on without medication. Mayo Clinic explains the infection can potentially spread to the kidneys.
Next: This issue caused Kennedy the most discomfort throughout his life.
9. Chronic and severe back pain
Kennedy’s back issues were harder to hide, especially after having near-fatal back surgery while he was a senator in 1954, TIME notes. He often blamed his pain on football injuries from back in the day, or from World War II injuries. But in reality, his back problems started at a very young age and nearly crippled him.
The New York Times notes Kennedy would receive “seven to eight injections of procaine in his back in the same sitting” before important meetings. Later, he was prescribed amphetamines for his pain, too.
Next: He wasn’t getting much shut-eye, either.
10. Sleep issues
Sleep is crucial for staying healthy, so Kennedy’s lack of rest certainly didn’t help him. How Sleep Works explains Kennedy was on two barbiturates to help him get enough sleep while he was president.
Unfortunately, his barbiturate usage could have contributed to his muscle weakness and bone pain. And they can also be habit-forming, though it wasn’t much of a concern at the time.
Next: Kennedy’s bones were also a huge problem.
JFK’s back pain likely came from one main issue: osteoporosis. This disease causes the bones to become brittle from a loss of tissue and can develop from hormonal issues, so his Addison’s disease may have also contributed to this. And The Atlantic notes the corticosteroids he used to treat his stomach and colon problems also could have caused it.
Medical records also showed that the back surgery Kennedy went through in the ’40s clearly showed bone loss and “abnormally soft disc interspace material.”
Next: This condition also affected his hormones.
Knowing the full extent of Kennedy’s health problems, experts now believe he had a bigger underlying autoimmune condition, Annals of Internal Medicine reports. And experts think this condition also led to his hypothyroidism, which occurs when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones. He was diagnosed with this condition while at a New York hospital in 1955.
Hypothyroidism also probably kept Kennedy from feeling his best, too, as it can cause fatigue, mood changes, and constipation.
Next: His mental health was in trouble, too.
13. Anxiety and depression
Jackie Kennedy was reportedly one of the first to note her husband’s declining mental health. The Atlantic reports she thought the antihistamines he took for his food allergies were causing depression. She instead asked his doctor to give her husband something to lift his mood without hurting his stomach — so the doctor gave Kennedy an anti-psychotic.
He reportedly only used the drug for two days, but it’s likely any mental anguish he experienced was exacerbated by his physical problems for much longer.
Next: Today, doctors suspect Kennedy had this major illness.
14. A possible autoimmune disorder now known as ‘Kennedy’s hypothyroidism’
After years of analysis, experts now believe Kennedy had autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type 2. The Los Angeles Times notes this disease, which affects the endocrine system that includes all the glands in your body responsible for making hormones, could have caused the Addison’s disease and hypothyroidism. And since Addison’s disease often comes from an autoimmune disorder, it makes sense that Kennedy had this all along.
Conditions like APS 2 are often carried on through family genes, too. Keep in mind that Kennedy’s younger sister had Addison’s and his son had Graves’ disease, another thyroid condition, too.
Next: Medications help — but they can also harm.
15. A range of side effects from all of his medications
The LA Times reports Kennedy took a wealth of medications and injections throughout his life and during his presidency. These included vitamin C twice daily, hydrocortisone, prednisone, synthetic testosterone, synthetic thyroid hormones, fludrocortisone for adrenals, diarrhea medications, atropine sulfate, and various antibiotics to treat his recurring infections.
Thanks to modern medicine, we know that being on a range of prescriptions can be detrimental over time. As noted before, the heavy steroid use severely affected Kennedy’s bones, and his wife thought some of his meds also harmed him mentally.
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