Judging by the number of ads for products that promise to improve your health or slow aging, many people in the United States are obsessed with trying to maintain their vitality.

Interest into the health of our leaders such as the president can be a factor in elections. In 1960, the image of a vigorous and suntanned John F. Kennedy helped the 43-year-old become the youngest man ever elected president. In reality, President Kennedy had a complicated medical history.

JFK was diagnosed with Addison’s disease when he was just 30 years old. Addison’s is a disease of the adrenal glands, which are small triangular glands on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands produce hormones including cortisol, aldosterone, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

These hormones regulate your metabolism, immune system, stress responses and other important functions. Adrenal glands consist of two parts, the cortex and the medulla, each producing different hormones.

Addison’s disease is adrenal insufficiency, a rare disorder affecting about one in 100,000 people, which results from having low levels of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol is important for the body’s response to stress such as illness or injury. It’s involved in maintaining blood pressure, heart function, the immune response and blood glucose levels.

Aldosterone helps maintain the balance of sodium and potassium in the blood. This will affect urine production by the kidneys, which influences blood volume and pressure.

Symptoms of Addison’s disease include weight loss, poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, darkening of skin and abdominal pain. The wonderful tan that people mistook for a vigorous and athletic JFK was actually the hyper-pigmentation of the skin from Addison’s disease.

Kennedy collapsed after a parade in Boston while running for Congress in 1945 and again on a visit to England in 1947. The latter incident was ascribed to malaria, which he contracted during his service in World War II.

In 1955, Kennedy also was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and liothyronine was added to his drug regimen. Given the extent of his endocrine complications, physicians have since suggested that his diagnosis was likely a more involved autoimmune disease.

During the presidential campaign in 1960, JFK’s opponents raised questions about his Addison’s disease and the attempt to cover it up. The bacterium that causes tuberculosis not only infects the lungs but also the adrenal glands and can lead to Addison’s disease. The president’s brother, Robert, issued a misdirecting statement that his brother didn’t have Addison’s disease, which he described as “a tuberculose destruction of the adrenal gland.”

JFK did have Addison’s disease, but it wasn’t caused by tuberculosis. His opponents backed off on that issue, and JFK won the election against Vice President Richard Nixon. It was a close election: Kennedy won the popular vote by only 112,000 votes out of a total of 68 million.

Presidential candidates do have rights to their privacy, but they also should be honest about their physical and mental health and with any changes that could affect their ability to carry out their duties.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.

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