President’s Day is often celebrated with family outings, weekend trips, or simply taking time to unwind and relax. But there is an important element of February closely related to President’s Day that should not be overlooked. In 1963, as one of his earlier actions as president, Lyndon B. Johnson signed a declaration that marked the month of February as American Heart Month.
Heart health was a personally impactful issue for Johnson, as it is for many presidents. Johnson himself suffered multiple heart attacks during his life, the last of which was the cause of his death. It is not surprising that his desire to raise awareness for cardiovascular health manifested itself in such a lasting manner.
Many presidents have suffered cardiac issues while in office or after their service was completed. Some believe this is due to the intense stress placed on the individuals leading the country. But there are other significant factors that have been involved in several presidential terms leading to poor heart health. Some of the greatest and most common instigators of poor cardiovascular health for everyone, not just presidents, includes:
- Poor diet
- Sedentary lifestyle/lack of activity
- Heavy consumption of alcohol
- Chronic mental and/or physical stress
Clearly these issues are not exclusive to those that hold the office of president. However, it is easy to see how the unique quality of their position can increase the risk of cardiovascular difficulties and we may be able to learn from their experiences. Through considering the stressors and factors that caused many of our historical leaders to experience cardiac stress and personally taking steps to prevent it in our own lives we can increase both awareness and prevention this President’s Day.
Past Presidents and Future Prevention
Since its inception, the presidency has been recognized as a difficult and stressful position to hold. It is not surprising, even though they are provided the best medical practitioners available and staff to coordinate healthy meals and exercise routines, that those who hold the position of president can suffer from cardiovascular malfunction. Several presidents experienced significant heart health problems.
William Taft, who held the office of president from 1909 to 1913 holds the unfortunate title as the United States most obese president. At a height of 5’11” and weighing roughly 340 lbs. near the end of his second term it is not particularly surprising that he suffered the consequences of poor heart health. Reportedly, Taft lost 80 lbs. while following a proper diet after he vacated the position of president. Multiple medical professionals believe that he effectively extended his life through this significant loss of weight. Taft unfortunately passed at the age of 72 due to cardiovascular disease. The important piece to take from this example is the staggering impact that weight management has on one’s heart health. If maintaining a proper weight can extend one’s life, then it is certainly worth the effort.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the president from 1953 to 1961 and faced serious cardiovascular difficulty during and after his time in office. Between 1955 and 1969, Eisenhower experienced seven heart attacks as well as the stroke that ultimately took his life at the age of 78. Early in his residence in office, it was well known that he regularly smoked up to three packs of cigarettes per day in addition to frequently drinking alcohol. Both habits have incredibly detrimental and lasting impacts on the body, particularly the cardiovascular system. Although alcohol is considered safe when taken in moderation it can easily be abused leading to irreparable damage. Smoking however should always be avoided and kicked from one’s life as soon as possible.
Bill Clinton struggled with obesity while serving in office between 1993 and 2001. Soon after leaving the post of president, Clinton was forced to undergo a quadruple bypass surgery in 2004 at the age of 58. Six years later, complaints of chest pains returned him to the operating table. This time the procedure included two coronary stents place in his heart. These small wire-mesh tubes widen arteries to improve blood flow and heart function. After undergoing the emergency surgery Clinton switched to a vegan diet. The president himself recognizes this as a critical change that has helped him maintain a healthier lifestyle.
So far the examples given have had apparent predispositions for heart disease based on lifestyle practices. Interestingly, George W. Bush who was president between 2001 and 2009, also experienced serious heart problems. In 2013 even though the 67-year-old President was and is an avid cyclist who regularly exercised, he had to undergo an angioplasty to remove arterial blockage.
Interestingly, George Bush Senior had heart problems as well even though he was physically active and seemingly healthy. The source of President H. W. Bush’s atrial fibrillation (rapid and irregular heartbeat) was traced to a thyroid condition rather than a direct heart failure. Both Bush’s experiences show that even if there are no apparent or obvious contributors to cardiovascular disease it is still important to take care and be aware of one’s heart.
Taking the Right Steps
Having a properly balanced lifestyle is one of the best ways of preventing cardiovascular disease. Two incredibly impactful means of improving one’s heart-health and overall quality of life are as simple as moving one’s body and eating home-cooked meals.
Some people get scared or immediately demotivated when it comes to engaging in exercise. If that’s the case, simply try to move more. Activity doesn’t need a label to be healthy. The American Heart Association suggests getting 150 minutes of activity per week. This doesn’t mean that one has to start a running routing, lift weights, or swim laps. Instead, one should find fun and engaging activities that get their body moving.
In a similar fashion to getting up and moving, diet doesn’t have to mean cutting out everything one enjoys eating. One of the best ways to cut calories and improve nutritional quality is to start cooking at home. By avoiding processed foods and incorporating more natural products such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains, nutritional value sky rockets. Importantly, this also allows greater control over sodium levels and other cardiovascular influencing elements found in foods. It may seem daunting at first, but even having healthy foods available in the home increases the chance that habits will change.
Celebrate the Day
By looking back at the heart history of some of our country’s leaders and learning from their experiences we gain a better understanding and an inspired motivation regarding heart health. Combatting cardiovascular inhibitors such as obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet, and inactivity can lead to a healthier heart down the road. Hopefully this President’s Day will start a tradition of raising heart health awareness and promoting healthy lifestyle choices.