Real Presidential Migraines and Other Presidential Ailments

With the media buzzing daily about the politicians vying for a place in the upcoming presidential primaries and this summer’s news story about Michelle Bachmann’s migraines, it seems an apt time to look back at some of our past president’s medical conditions.

Starting off with real “Presidential Migraines” US leaders who were known headache sufferers included Thomas Jefferson (cluster headaches), John F. Kennedy (migraines), and Harry Truman (stress headaches).

It’s widely known that William Taft was obese, Ronald Reagan suffered Alzheimer’s Disease after his presidency and that George Washington had severe dental problems (and research conducted on some of his dentures in 2005 concluded that Washington’s alleged wooden choppers were actually made from a combination of ivory, gold, and lead, along with some human and animal teeth).

One of the more interesting cases was that of Woodrow Wilson. The president, who led the country during World War I and who appeared to be in satisfactory health, suffered debilitating strokes in 1919 during his second term in office. In fact he suffered from hypertension and may have had his first stroke at age 39. Although he was severely incapacitated with left sided paralysis and blindness in most of his vision, he kept his condition secret from his Cabinet, the public, and even the Vice President. His personal physician would never publicly admit the true scope of Wilson’s health. A reporter was hired to write a fake interview.  In June 1920, a carefully staged photograph was released showing him signing a document. Despite the impact of the stroke, he served out his term with his wife Edith carrying out much of his work behind the scenes.

Aspects of Franklin Roosevelt’s failing health were also covered up. In addition to polio, the impact of his smoking, and general presidential stresses due to the WWII, FDR had extreme hypertension, coronary artery disease, and heart disease. Prior to the 1944 election, he began making plans for his funeral and memorial, giving farewell gifts to his friends and employees and burial instructions to his son. He died in April 1945, only three months after he began his fourth term of office. Exactly who participated in the cover up, including the role of his personal physician, has been a mystery, with FDR’s medical records having gone missing from a locked safe.

Also secretive about his health was Grover Cleveland, who had a cancerous growth removed from his jaw and had a rubber prosthesis implanted to disguise the effects of the surgery. His condition was undisclosed to the public until well after his death (which was not from cancer).

John F. Kennedy suffered from endocrine problems for most of his adult life, as well as back problems and an array of gastrointestinal issues. He took hormones, steroids, and other assorted medications on a regular basis. Although giving the impression, publicly, that he was of satisfactory health, the reality was anything but and he, too, kept much of his maladies a secret.

Some of the more quirky medical afflictions among our past Commanders in Chief include boils on the buttocks (Jefferson), hemorrhoids (Carter and FDR), sleep apnea (Taft), and gout (Van Buren and Buchanan). Plus, a vast majority of our leaders snored–not a health hazard, but perhaps of some frustration and lack of sleep for their First Ladies.

The Truth About Migraines

Migraines sound pretty boring as a blog topic. Actually they aren’t. I know. I take care of them. And I have them myself. And I named my first novel Presidential Migraines.

Migraines have been in the news this summer when it was leaked that Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a Presidential candidate, has them. The press claimed Ms. Bachmann might be laid up for days at a time and this could impact her effectiveness in the Oval Office.  The story is almost certainly nefarious political fiction; these days migraines are well treated in the vast majority of people, be they Presidential candidates or anyone else.

Migraines affect 12% of the American population with 18% of females and 6% of males having at least one per year). Yet, they are clearly underdiagnosed, a core reason being that some people with migraines never get headaches. Estimates are 3%, but I suspect that is grossly low because most people don’t think they have a migraine unless it includes an incapacitating headache and head-in-the-toilet vomiting. To neurologists that would simply be called  a bad migraine

Take my migraines, which I never knew ran in my family for every known generation until I started asking questions. At age 27 as a G2 neurology resident at the University of Minnesota, I experienced spells where I thought I was going to pass out, couldn’t think straight, and was dizzy, but had no headache. To be sure that I wasn’t simply hypoglycemic, I had my blood checked. Normal.  Same for CT and EEG. Then I spoke to Mom—often an excellent resource—and she clued me in on our family’s history with migraines. In fact, as I child, I had a few emergency room visits for possible appendicitis, which turned out to be abdominal migraines. This goes to show it’s not always in your head!

Hemiplegic migraines run in some families, where the sufferer  becomes paralyzed on half his body (with or without a headache), almost like a stroke. Some get aphasic; they can’t speak or understand–or both–even though they know exactly what they want to say! This can also cause partial or total blindness (scotoma and hemianopsia). Some people even pass out–not from the pain either.

Certain foods and medications are known to be precipitants of migraines, such as cheese, chocolate, red wine, and hormones. If you’re prone to migraines, you may need to curtail or avoid consumption or usage altogether.

To this day I rarely get actual headache symptoms. On rare occasions, I may find myself reading the same medical report three times and can’t understand it–I recognize that to be a symptom of my migraines and simply take two ibuprofen.

If you suspect you have migraines and are concerned, you should seek the help of your physician or a neurologist. Neurologists are specialists who deal with migraines as well as other brain diseases.