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Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908 – 1973)

On January 22, 1973, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, died at age 65 from his fourth heart attack, suffered at his ranch in Johnson City, Texas. He could have lived much longer if he had changed the lifestyle factors that caused his first heart attack at age 42.

Johnson was famous for an incredible work ethic of 20-hour work days. He chain-smoked, was overweight, did not exercise, ate too much red meat and fried foods and did not eat enough fruits or vegetables.

He began his political career as a young man during the Roosevelt administration and served all four elected federal offices: Representative, Senator, Vice President and President. He became President the day Kennedy was assassinated, and went on to supervise passage of “Great Society” legislation that included civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection and education. He also increased American involvement in the Vietnam War, which resulted in riots and crime throughout the country.

First Heart Attack
At age 42 (July 2, 1955), LBJ suffered a near-fatal heart attack and spent the rest of his life being afraid of being alone. At that time, he smoked 60 cigarettes a day. After his heart attack, he stopped smoking and did not resume this dangerous habit until after he left the White House in 1969.

Second Heart Attack
At age 49 (1962) he had a second heart attack. When he was 50, immediately after the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas and just before being sworn in as the next president of the United States (November 22, 1963), LBJ was rushed to the emergency room. He appeared scared out of his wits, his face was pale and he was holding his chest. The physician who saw him thought that he was having another heart attack, but he was suffering only from angina: chest pain from blocked arteries leading to his heart.

Another Heart Attack Scare
In March, 1970, after leaving the White House, LBJ was hospitalized at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for chest pains. Again he was diagnosed as having angina. He weighed 235 pounds and was told to lose weight. He had gained more than 25 pounds after leaving the presidency. He went on a crash water diet and lost fifteen pounds in a month. However, after 15 years of not smoking, he resumed chain-smoking in 1971. He said: “I’m an old man, so what’s the difference? I always loved cigarettes, missed them every day since I quit. I don’t want to linger the way Eisenhower did. When I go, I want to go fast.”

Third Heart Attack
At age 64 (1972), Johnson suffered a massive heart attack while visiting his daughter Lynda in Charlottesville, Virginia. Normally a person stays in the hospital when he has a heart attack, but LBJ convinced Lady Bird to let him fly home to Texas. He probably had serious brain damage that can occur from decreased blood flow to the brain during a heart attack, which caused his bad behavior and poor choices. On his third day in intensive care, he was flown in the middle of the night to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The hospital director in Charlottesville was so frightened by the prospect of the former president leaving his hospital and dying on an airplane that he rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. He found only LBJ’s empty wheelchair in the parking lot.

Johnson survived the airplane ride, but spent the last seven months of his life suffering from severe chest pain. He complained of “hurting real bad”, but continued to chain smoke and overeat an abundance of unhealthful foods. He frequently had to lie down and breathe from a portable oxygen tank.

He developed severe belly pains which were diagnosed as diverticulitis. He was flown to Houston to see Dr. Michael DeBakey Dr. DeBakey refused to operate because all of the arteries leading to LBJ’s heart were severely blocked.

On Jan. 2, 1973, President Richard Nixon called LBJ at his ranch to tell him that peace in Vietnam was coming. Johnson said he had just called his doctors because he had been suffering heart pains all night. Nixon responded: “I called you at the wrong time.”

Fourth Heart Attack
At age 65, on Jan. 22, 1973, secret service agents found LBJ stretched out on his bed, reaching for the telephone. He had suffered another heart attack and died. The autopsy showed that two of his three main heart arteries were blocked completely and the third was more than 80 percent blocked.

Fatal Lifestyle Choices
Smoking: LBJ smoked three packs a day before his first heart attack. He gave up smoking until after he left the White House. Smoking two packs of cigarettes a day doubles your chances of suffering a heart attack. One year after you give up smoking, you are no more likely to suffer a heart attack than some one who never smoked. Smoking also increases your risk for lung cancer, and that risk remains forever, even if you stop smoking.

Poor Nutrition and Excess Weight: Johnson never went on a proper diet, even after he had his heart attacks. He stopped eating red meat for a while, but preventing heart attacks involves a lot more than just avoiding meat. He should have eaten lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts. He should have avoided fried foods, whole-milk dairy products, sugared drinks, sugar-added foods and other refined carbohydrates such as bakery products and pasta, as well as red meat.

In May 1966, LBJ received a note from the White House chef: “Mr. President, you have been my boss for a number of years and you always tell me you want to lose weight, and yet you never do very much to help yourself. Now I’m going to be your boss for a change. Eat what I put in front of you and don’t ask for any more and don’t complain.” But Johnson did not lose weight.

Lack of Exercise: After his heart attacks, Johnson should have been placed on a regular supervised exercise program.

Stressful Life: Johnson did not suffer a heart attack when he was under the terrible stress of being President through the Vietnam war. His intimidating size and his aggressive Type A personality may have protected him then, but his lifetime of stress certainly contributed to his bad lifestyle choices (smoking, lousy diet, no time to exercise). He was an incredibly domineering politician who often worked more than 20 hours a day, and frightened and forced other politicians to support the legislation he proposed. Johnson was quoted as saying: “I don’t have ulcers. I give them!”

October 13th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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