QUESTION: My teacher said that President Lincoln and President Kennedy had illnesses. Is it true?

ANSWER: Yes, your teacher is right. President Abraham Lincoln suffered from Marfan syndrome and President John F. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease.

Marfan syndrome is a rare inherited degenerative disease of connective tissue. Marfan syndrome is named after Antoine Marfan, a French pediatrician who described the disease in 1896.

People with Marfan may have a deformed chest and a curvature of the spine (scoliosis). The bones become unusually long, so people with Marfan syndrome tend to be unusually tall. Sometimes these people will have heart murmurs due to abnormalities in the aorta and heart valves. The lungs can be affected. The dural bag around the coiled cord can be put to the test. People with Marfan syndrome tend to be very nearsighted.

Scientists discovered the gene responsible for Marfan syndrome in 1989. They discovered that the syndrome is inherited from a dominant trait, carried by the FBN1 gene on chromosome 15. Being a dominant gene, a person with Marfan syndrome can inherit the gene from either parent.

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Marfan syndrome is diagnosed by a series of tests, including an echocardiogram, an EKG, and a slit lamp eye test. The slit lamp eye test helps the doctor determine if the lenses in the eyes are dislocated or displaced. A CT scan or MRI of the lower back can also help in the diagnosis. Marfan may be suffering from lung capacity problems.

President Kennedy had a long history of illness. He missed two-thirds of kindergarten due to illness. When he reached adulthood, he had hormonal pellets injected into his thigh every two months, the most common treatment at the time for Addison’s disease. He regularly collapses and receives the last rites twice. Major politicians and the press in Washington DC knew he was ill during the 1960 campaign, but Kennedy’s managers misled the public with cleverly worded statements.

Addison’s disease destroys the adrenal glands and depletes the body of cortisol. There are two adrenal glands, one on each kidney. They produce more than half a dozen hormones, the most important of which are cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol ensures that the bloodstream contains enough glucose, a sugar that is essential for the brain to function. One of the most common symptoms of Addison’s disease is fatigue.

A common side effect of Addison’s disease is bronze skin, which provided Kennedy with her crisp, telegenic tan that turned out well on television. Kennedy was treated for Addison’s disease when he had back surgery in 1954.

Doctors discovered in the 1800s that Addison’s disease was a side effect of tuberculosis. Treatment today consists of daily replacement with adrenal hormones or prednisone. Today, people with Addison’s disease can expect to lead healthy, normal lives.

Sources: WebMD, Mayo Clinic.

Larry Scheckel is a retired physics teacher at Tomah High School.

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