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Next PagePrevious Page Sleep Apnea and Other Historical Figures

Sleep apnea has been identified in persons as far back as 360 BC.  

Besides President Taft, other persons of historical note may have had sleep apnea, including:


Napoleon Bonaparte
Emperor of France 1804-1814, 1815. Lived 1769-1821.
Chouard and colleagues  describe several predispostions or indicators of sleep apnea in Napoleon:
  • He was obese.
  • He had a short thick neck.
  • He had nasal obstruction.
  • He slept during the day.
  • He had declining energy and intellect later in his short life.
On the negative side, they have considerable difficulty explaining why there are no descriptions of Napoleon snoring, especially since he had a lifelong habit of sleeping anywhere, any time, presumably in full view of many witnesses. Chouard and colleagues also fail to show that Napoleon spent adequate time in bed, an important consideration, since his unusual sleep habits started early in life (for example, he often awakened in the middle of the night to work and take a hot bath).

Johannes Brahms
Composer, Lived 1833-1897.
Dr. Mitchell Margolis has made a reasonable case that the irascible Brahms had obstructive sleep apnea.  

Winston Churchill
Prime Minister of Great Britain. Lived 1874-1965.
Although there is a book titled Winston Churchill's Afternoon Nap, it deals little with sleep, and even less with Churchill (one sentence!).

In addition to his famous afternoon naps as an impossibly overworked war-time Prime Minister, Churchill was a famous snorer, was obese, and enjoyed alcohol and cigars. By living to age 90 Churchill defied many statistical health risk factors. Was sleep apnea another?


Grover Cleveland
22nd and 24th President of the United States, 1885-1889, 1893-1897. Lived 1837-1908.
Cleveland had several reasons to be at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea:
  1. He was the second-heaviest President.  
  2. He snored.  
  3. He had a thick neck.
  4. He loved beer.  
At the time of his cancer operation in 1893, Cleveland was 56 years old and was "extremely corpulent, with a short, thick neck."

Although at risk, there is no conclusive evidence he actually had the disease. It will be difficult to find such evidence. Unlike Taft, "who was fascinated by his ailments and would describe them with minute detail" , Cleveland wrote few letters about his personal affairs or personal feelings until his last years.  


Henry VIII
King of England. Lived 1491-1547
In his review of Henry's health, Brewer  does not mention signs or symptoms of sleep apnea. However, Henry was severely obese in the last 10 years of his life. Brewer notes that Henry had a "marked alteration of his character" in association with the weight gain, but ascribes this to Cushing syndrome.

Franklin Roosevelt  
32nd President of the United States, 1933-1945. Lived 1882-1945.
FDR had at least four predisposing factors for sleep apnea:
  1. A history of polio in 1921 (at age 39).
  2. He smoked.
  3. He had heart failure.
  4. He snored.
Hypertension, a recognized complication of obstructive sleep apnea, was first noted in FDR in 1931. It was a contributing factor, if not the cause, of his heart failure. (Roosevelt also had coronary artery disease.)

Roosevelt was utterly tired during the many months of his final illness. For example, in January 1944 he began complaining of headaches in the evening. "He seemed strangely tired, even in the morning hours; he occasionally nodded off during a conversation; once, he blacked out half-way through signing his name to a letter, leaving a long scrawl." He several times complained about his excessive sleeping.

Toward the end of his life, given his cardiac status, it is likely FDR had central sleep apnea. Whether he additionally had obstructive sleep apnea remains unknown. The degree to which Roosevelt's symptoms can be ascribed to sleep disorded breathing versus end-stage heart failure is also unknown.


Theodore Roosevelt
26th President of the United States, 1901-1909. Lived 1858-1919.
The main reasons to entertain whether Theodore Roosevelt had sleep apnea are:
  • He was a thunderous snorer. Roosevelt snored so loudly in a hospital that complaints were filed by almost every patient in the wing where he was recuperating.  
  • He added a great deal of weight later in his life.
  • He died suddenly and unexpectedly during sleep, at a relatively young age (60).
The main reason to dismiss the possibility is his lack of somnolence. For example, in the White House he
liked to read in the evening after all was quiet. The usual retiring hour was about ten-thirty, but it was always with difficulty that the President was persuaded to turn in at that time.  
On the campaign trail in Milwaukee in 1912 (seven years before he died), a compatriot recalled:
We had a few minutes before dinner, and the Colonel took a little nap sitting in a rocking-chair in his room. It was the only time, in all the campaign trips I made with him, that I ever saw him sleep before bedtime.  
The same compatriot described Roosevelt's 1912 eating habits:
We usually had our meals together in the dining-car. He was an eager and valiant trencherman, and I saw how it was that he had more than two inches of flesh and fat over his ribs.... He drank great quantities of milk, but not much of anything else. I have seen him eat a whole chicken and drink four large glasses of milk at one meal, and chicken and milk were by no means the only things served.
Death was ascribed to an embolism (blood clot). There was an episode of breathlessness before he went to bed that evening, which would not be characteristic of sleep apnea. A servant noticed at 4 a.m. that Roosevelt's breathing was amiss, and "went at once to the bedside."   Roosevelt had had a pulmonary embolism three weeks earlier.

Overall, a strong case cannot be made that this Roosevelt suffered from sleep apnea.


Victoria
Queen of England. Lived 1819-1901.
Victoria became quite obese in later life. Her waist measurement was 46 inches. She was 5 feet 2 inches tall in her youth, but appeared to lose several inches with age.

Victoria suffered from insomnia in her later years, and was

very apt to fall asleep during the day. Her ladies had been able to keep her awake when in her carriage by repeatedly rearranging her cushions.
She normally went to bed about 10 p.m. and took sleeping medicine (chloral), but had "sleepless nights." "She was not therefore really awake until noon and so much of the day was wasted." She was irritable and had some memory loss.

Sleep apnea can masquerade as insomnia. A circadian rhythm disorder should also be considered in Victoria's case. Brewer does not describe a specific cause of death, calling it "senile decay."


References


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Last modified 15:33 Pacific on 18 Oct 2003.