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Publicize presidential candidates' health records, historians say

June 5, 2008 | 11:29 am

Health_of_presidents_3 If elected president, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, would be the oldest president to take office. That's why it was a big deal two weeks ago when McCain's personal doctors proclaimed him to be in excellent health. The assessment on McCain's health, however, was released in a tightly controlled news conference in which reporters were not provided with copies of McCain's medical records and were granted limited information in order, McCain's doctors said, to protect McCain's privacy. For example, his doctors wouldn't say whether McCain had tests to assess his cognitive status.

That's just not good enough, say two medical historians in an editorial published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. They say it's time for the nation to create a congressionally appointed, bipartisan, unbiased panel of medical, ethical and legal scholars to review the health history of all presidents, vice presidents and presidential candidates. The reports from this commission would be submitted to the White House and Congress and made public.

Polls show that Americans believe good health is essential to the president's performance. But the authors of the report, from the University of Michigan, say that history shows the public is often in the dark about the health of the country's chief executive. Moreover, the fact that Americans are living longer and are more comfortable electing age-70-and-older officials increases the need for more candor on the part of those elected officials. The recently tightened health-privacy rights afforded to all Americans, they say, simply shouldn't apply to the nation's top dogs.

"Unlike patient confidentiality protections for private citizens, nominees and eventual winners of presidential and vice presidential elections are among the most public of patients in the world," the editorial states. "Today, voters are demanding and receiving more information about the lives of presidential nominees and elected presidents and vice presidents than ever before in U.S. history. The inescapable reality of 21st-century instantaneous communications is that those who aspire to the U.S. presidency surrender almost all privileges and prerogatives related to privacy whether they wish to or not."

There is one downside to such detailed disclosure, the authors note. The losing candidate may find himself or herself unable to obtain health insurance.

Some past presidents' hidden health problems:

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1921 polio infection was well known but the extent of his paralysis was not. Many years after his death, historians raised the possibility that his many hidden health problems -- severe hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure -- may have affected his performance at the 1945 Yalta Conference.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his candidacy for reelection without revealing the details of his 1955 near-fatal heart attack. Also secret were Eisenhower's battles with stroke, intestinal obstruction and motor aphasia during his second term.
  • Although he said he did not have "real Addison's disease," John F. Kennedy did, indeed, have the adrenal disease and, unknown to the public at the time, received heavy doses of corticosteroids for the problem as well as painkillers for back pain throughout his presidency.
  • Much debate has centered on Ronald Reagan's cognitive status during his last term as president. Though there is no evidence that his Alzheimer's disease symptoms began while in office, Reagan was not tested for the disease while serving as president even though his mother had suffered from dementia.

- Shari Roan

Photos: President Kennedy by HO/AFP/Getty Images, Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan by Associated Press