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What Killed President Andrew Jackson?

andrew jacksonAndrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States (1829-1837), the first who was brought up in poverty and the first not to come from either Massachusetts or Virginia.  He certainly was one of the toughest presidents who ever lived. He served in the Revolutionary War as a militia courier at age 13 in 1780, and was the first American general to win a battle against a European army when he defeated the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. He fought several pistol duels.  He served on the Tennessee Supreme Court, served in both houses of Congress and was Military Governor of Florida.  As president, he dismantled the Second Bank of the United States, was the only president to pay off the federal debt and the first president to survive an assassination attempt. He died in 1845 at age 78.
 
His Extreme Thinness Saved His Life 
When Jackson was 39, he got into a quarrel with fellow lawyer and gambler Charles Dickenson, who called him a worthless scoundrel for not paying a debt on a horse race. He then insulted the honor of Jackson's wife, Rachel, because they had married before her divorce from her first husband was finalized, and Jackson felt compelled to challenge him to a duel.
 
In a duel, competitors walk a specific distance from each other, turn and fire. Usually the first to fire wins, unless he misses. Then he usually loses.  Dickinson had fought many duels, won them all, and was an expert marksman.  Jackson was not an experienced dueler and wasn’t even a very good shot. Jackson knew, no matter how hard he tried, Dickinson was so skilled and experienced that he would get the first shot, no matter what Jackson did.  To save his life, Jackson had do something clever.   He knew that he was incredibly thin, weighing only 135 pounds at a height of 6’1", so he wore a long dark blue coat and long black, baggy trousers to make him look wider than he actually was.
 
As expected, Dickinson fired first and the bullet entered Jackson's chest in his lungs and below his heart. Dickinson screamed: “I missed him.” Then Jackson re-cocked his gun and shot again to kill Dickinson. Dickinson’s aim was perfect, but he had shot at the wrong place. Jackson's coat extended all the way to his knees and hid the fact that he had pulled his baggy pants up to his armpits, so he looked like he was taller than he actually was. When Dickinson took aim at what he thought was Jackson’s heart, he was really aiming at Jackson’s lower chest. His aim was perfect, but instead of going through Jackson's heart, the bullet went through his left lower ribs, several inches below his heart. Jackson bled from his lungs, not his heart, and his left boot filled with blood. He recovered, but suffered chronic chest pain and a bloody cough for the rest of his life.
 

Life-long Health Problems and Unhealthful Habits
• He lost all of his teeth at an early age (this is usually the result of a chronic mouth infection that increases risk for heart attacks) .
• Both Jackson and his wife were lifelong smokers (a major heart attack risk factor). 
• He suffered from chronic headaches and belly pains (most likely the result of a chronic infection).
• He had a violent temper, cursed constantly and had many duels and fights.  He said that he had two regrets: that he "had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.
• He had a deep bloody cough that was most likely caused by a bullet that remained in his lungs after his famous duel with Dickinson (possible source of lead poisoning). 
• He had many bouts of left chest pain that kept him in bed for several weeks at a time (limited physical activity increases risk for heart attacks).
• Later in life he suffered from paranoia, violent mood swings, severe shaking of his hands and chronic heart and kidney failure
 

Did His Physicians Kill Him?
For just about every disease, most early 19th-century physicians prescribed two medications: calomel (mercurous chloride) and sugar of lead (lead acetate). In 1999, two hairs from Jackson’s head were analyzed for mercury and lead. Mercury levels were 6 and 5.6 parts per million (PPM) from both the 1815 and 1839 hair specimens (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1999;282 (6):569-571). Lead levels were incredibly high, at 130 PPM in 1815 and 44 PPM, in the 1839 specimen. These heavy metals can damage and destroy every organ in a person's body including the brain, heart and kidneys.  All of the symptoms he experienced could have been caused by poisoning from the prescriptions that contained mercury or lead.  The bullet probably also contributed to the high lead levels.
 
Cause of Death
At age 78, he suffered from suffocating shortness of breath. His neck veins swelled and his shoes hurt him because they were too tight. Then his ankles, legs, hands and belly started to swell. To be able to breathe, he had to sit up in bed propped up on pillows. By late spring, his face was swollen and he exclaimed, “I am a blubber of water.” Then he smothered to death.
 
The weeks of being bed ridden with chest pain were caused by several heart attacks which damaged his heart muscle and eventually made it too weak to pump blood through his body.  People in heart failure retain fluid and swell all over their bodies. The fluid collects in their lungs so they can’t breathe, and in their legs, so their shoes feel too tight and then their legs swell so much that they are unable to walk.
 

Be grateful for all of the advances we have made in the last 200 years. 
• Prescription drugs are now carefully tested to make sure that they do more good than harm.
• Surgical techniques have improved dramatically so it is now almost always possible to remove foreign objects. (Also, dueling has been outlawed and is no longer the accepted way to settle grudges).
• We have a good understanding of the health consequences of smoking, poor dental care and eating a lot of red meat -- and fresh vegetables are now available year-round.
• We have a much better understanding of the causes and prevention of heart attacks and heart failure.  Unfortunately, even with all of the information that is available today, many people refuse to follow the rules and 40 percent of deaths in North America are caused by heart disease.
 
March 15, 1767 - June 8, 1845
April 1st, 2018
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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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