Eunice Kennedy Shriver, JFK and Addison’s Disease

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy, and Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy has died at a hospital in Hyannis, MA. One of her most important legacies is as the founder of Special Olympics. Inspired by a sister, Rosemary Kennedy, with learning disabilities, Mrs. Shriver began the Special Olympics in 1968, to encourage involvement in physical activity and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. She was also was a key founder of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded Eunice Shriver the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy work with the intellectually disabled.

Although we don’t know the exact cause of Mrs. Shriver’s death, we do know she has suffered a number of strokes in the past few years and also that she had Addison’s Disease, a disease that she shared with her brother, President John F. Kennedy as described in the book The Health of the Presidents by J.R. Bumgarner (see below)

Addison’s Disease is a disorder of the adrenal gland, a pair of triangular shaped organs that sit on top of each kidney. The adrenals are responsible for making a number of hormones, most notable of which are cortisol and aldosterone.

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Cortisol has many important functions, in that it:

  • helps maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function
  • helps slow the immune system’s inflammatory response
  • helps balance the effects of insulin in breaking down sugar for energy
  • helps regulate the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
  • helps maintain proper arousal and sense of well-being

Aldosterone helps maintain blood pressure and water and salt balance in the body by its actions on the kidney. Addison’s Disease (also called Adrenal Insufficiency), is a disease where the body is unable to produce enough cortisol (and/or aldosterone). There are a number of causes: 1. An autoimmune response to the cells of the adrenal gland slowly destroying the cells and decrease adrenal function. 2. As part of an inherited disorder called polyendocrine deficiency syndrome, where family members may show more than one endocrine (hormone) problem. 3. Tuberculosis, not a frequent cause today,though it was the reason that Dr. Addison originally discovered the disease in the late 1800’s.

Symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue that gets worse over time
  • Low blood pressure
  • Patchy or dark skin
  • Difficulty dealing with infections, stress

To keep Addison’s Disease under control, patients must take medication daily to replace the missing hormones (replacement dose). Many medicines, called glucocorticoids can replace the action of cortisol.
The most commonly recommended are hydrocortisone, dexamethasone, or prednisone . At times of stress, such as an illness or upcoming surgery, the dosage must be increased to help the body deal with the stressful situation.

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Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

5 Comments

  1. Dr. Lloyd R. Thompson, MD

    August 29, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Most doctors do not understand this extremely complex disease. Cortisol AND Aldosterone must BOTH be tested regularly and managed with proper doses of supplement medications. Aldosterone levels are routinely overlooked and patients suffer for it with profuse sweating, crippling fatigue, and dizziness. I prefer managing Addison’s cortisol deficiency with dexameth and a mineralcorticoid for maintenance Aldosterone But when Addison’s is combined with autoimmune hypothyroidism you have this unique condition faced by JFK. He was very sick indeed.

    • Nasser Massry

      May 11, 2015 at 11:37 am

      Dr. Thompson
      I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism a year ago and last couple of weeks ago I got diagnosed with Addison disease. Although I have been suffering of low sodium and low testosterone since last October no one at two hospitals and my Endocrinologist no one tested my ACTH or mentioned Addison disease. I am over whelmed by this and I feel not many people understand what’s going on. I am scared an do not know what’s next. What can you tell me about this disease that I need to watch out for? Do I need to be with someone all the time? are there other organs will be affected and fail? And forgive me for not knowing your specialty do you know a really will know specialist I can contact?
      Thanks very much.

      • brandon mills

        September 25, 2016 at 7:43 pm

        my name is Brandon mills and I have had addisons disease for 9 years. i weighed 300 pounds and went to 119 pounds in 3 months it is hard to go through so i understand.it is good to talk with someone that understands what we go through. but dont give up hope.with the wright meds you will be fine.

    • Jan

      February 27, 2016 at 4:26 pm

      I was diagnosed with Addison disease in 2008.I had had a stroke at the same time.I also have a pituitary adenoma.I drink alot of water, but am dehydrated about every 3 months.I live in Washington state.Jan also I’m diabetic.

      • Joe

        June 29, 2016 at 12:29 am

        I also have Adrenal Insufficiency and I get weekly infusions of IV fluids because I am chronically dehydrated. I am also a Diabetic which makes handling Adrenal Insufficiency more complicated. Steroids and Diabetes don’t do well together.

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