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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Did President John F. Kennedy Suffer Undiagnosed Celiac Disease?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Caption: Photo: Wikimadiea Commons--White House Press Office

    Celiac.com 03/28/2014 - Did John F. Kennedy suffer from symptoms of undiagnosed celiac disease? Celiac disease expert Dr. Peter H. R. Green says Kennedy's known symptoms and family history make it likely that America's 35th president did in fact have celiac disease, which remained undetected in his lifetime.

    Dr. Green is the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, professor of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University and attending physician at the Columbia University Medical Center.

    He writes that: “John F. Kennedy’s long-standing medical problems started in childhood. In Kennedy’s adolescence, gastrointestinal symptoms, weight and growth problems as well as fatigue were described. Later in life, he suffered from abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, osteoporosis, migraine and Addison’s disease. Chronic back problems, due to osteoporosis, resulted in several operations and required medications for chronic pain."

    Greene adds that Kennedy’s Irish heritage, history of gastrointestinal complaints since childhood, diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome and migraine, presence of severe osteoporosis, and the development of Addison’s disease all point to celiac disease.

    Kennedy was given steroids for his problems. Steroid use is associated with the development of osteoporosis and Addison’s disease.

    The occurrence of Addison’s disease in his sister, however, argues for a familial [genetic] cause of his Addison’s disease, rather than an iatrogenic one.


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    I consider myself an expert on JFK's medical issues having read the Dallek Neobiogrophy of JFK "An Unfinished Life" and having celiac myself. Giving this a medium rating due to the following: 1) It has been as disproved as one can possibly get that JFK had "Addison's Disease" due to: a) his never being tested and found low in lab cortisol; B) his adrenals were examined at autopsy following his Assassination at Bethesda Naval Hospital and found to be perfectly normal in appearance; c) his cortisol levels were tested under the physiologic stress of a back operation in 1955 and found to be absolutely normal--thus no indication of "Addisonian Crisis" as would be expected had the presumptive diagnosis been accurate. That pretty much puts the nail in the coffin of the thesis of "Addison's Disease", which was of course raised by the Nixon campaign in 1960 and denied by the Kennedy campaign (and accurately, despite the neo-critics that claim otherwise). 2) The osteoporosis JFK experienced was due to two factors: 1) His celiac sprue; 2) His daily usage of Corticosteroids from his early twenties until the day he was assassinated at age 46. Now clearly there is a "yin and yang" factor in that:1) The daily steroid usage placed his celiac and other related autoimmune conditions in, more or less, remission, but the side effects worsened his osteoporosis, something well recognized today as a side effect but not in JFK's day, so had he followed a strict gluten free diet instead of taken daily steroids those side effect issues would never have come into play;2) He left some of his corticosteroids home on a trip to England once and thus he was without this for a few days, which merely tripped a destabilzation of the homeostatic mechanism that resulted in underproduction of cortisol from the adrenals as a normal consequence of adjusting by the body to daily steroid use--yet in no way did this, as is commonly presumed and incorrectly so, reflect "Addison's Disease". Now, the current consensus medically is (thankfully, because Addison's theory is BUNK)he suffered something called Autoimmune Polyendocrine Syndrome Type II, which can encompass Celiac by definition(albeit that designation rather puts the Celiac on the back burner, which is in my judgment a disservice to medical history). That was designated to explain and focus on pain syndromes and his treatment by contemporary physicians of his day who treated him, notably Dr. Janet Travell. In this manner, medicine can now say something to the effect of "what a brilliant job it did in managing JFK's pain syndromes", yet what clearly WAS iatrogenic was his back pain and the extent of that from surgeries that did more harm than good and the daily steroid use is something that was experimental in his day, knocked back his autoimmune diseases, yet produced some side effects such that no physician today would ever believe in prescribing for that length of time for anything other than an immediate life-threatening emergency. The Addison's Disease thesis provided a basis upon which to BELIEVE he always had a life threatening emergency but this clearly was not the case, although celiac is nothing to sneeze at and clearly led to malnutritive conditions including the osteomalacia and bone loss associated therewith. The bottom line here is that many articles attempting to describe JFK's medical conditions fall short by falling into common pitfalls in delivering maximum elucidation to his obvious autoimmune syndromes which included celiac and Hashimoto's and likely ulcerative colitis, and the complications created thereto by his medical treatment. Yes, I do think we can reasonably add the treatment of pain having some skill involved in this, but of course this would not have been needed had the celiac sprue education series been inculcated into his medical treatment and understanding, and thus, would have saved him much pain, and might, as one physician put it, have enabled him to survive the assassination at the hands of Oswald shooting a rifle had he not have been wearing a back brace as a result. We will never know this of course, but what we can note is that the complications of the medical misunderstandings of his day led to a specific course of care that walked down a road that was unnecessary and painful in terms of surgeries, and to this day the medical profession has not come clean as to exactly why and where it goofed on his medical care, as if the medical profession is almost like the Kennedy family itself, reluctant at best to admit failures in care and reluctant at best to admit gaps in knowledge related to its own longstanding avoidance of understanding, coming to grips with, and relating professionally to the issue of celiac disease especially with respect to deliverance of maximum patient service.

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    President John F. Kennedy did not have celiac disease even though some people were trying to give it to him before he was killed. making themselves look like what?

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    Before I reply directly to Maria's comment (and I hope this is not Maria Shriver, who was related to the Kennedy Clan and married for awhile to the longtime Governor of "Cullyfornia", the ex-bodybuilder/ex-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger--in which case we have some family bias going on here), I will point out that Maria's comment here reflects the frenzical mythology surrounding the life of JFK. JFK was merely a man--but we seem to want to either reduce him to a philandering pervert or a Godly Mythical figure. And there is really no serious doubt he had celiac sprue at this point---view pictures of him as a child and young man and the emaciation is readily apparent. The steroids put some spark in his sex life he otherwise would never have experienced. And how is it with celiac men today, who do not have the benefit of long term treatment with steroids? Don't make me comment on THIS!! The "Cullyfornians" in particular would go Priestly and Cardinally and Bishoply and Nunly WILD!! Thank you!! As for former Governor S, I can only say on here....."I'll be BECK!!"

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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