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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Then
& Now

Medical Research Pays Off for All Americans

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of the very few photos showing him in a wheelchair.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), thirty-second President of the United States, was born before the advent of modern medical science. Elected president in 1932, he led the country through the Great Depression and World War II. His most famous saying was, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

While enduring the stresses of "the world's most demanding job," FDR also suffered from serious medical conditions. He was struck by polio in the summer of 1921, at age 39. A heavy smoker, he also had high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. He died of a stroke on April 12, 1945 at the age of 63.

Thanks to the country's continuing commitment to long-term medical research and scientific advancement, the ills, which afflicted Roosevelt, are either gone or can be controlled.

FDR's Condition Treatment Now Treatment Then
Polio – (infantile paralysis, poliomyelitis) Polio is an infection of the nervous system caused by a virus. It affects mostly young children. It is spread by contaminated food and water. In rare cases, like FDR's, it can cause paralysis. The height of the U.S. polio epidemic was in the early 1950s, when more than 50,000 new cases a year were diagnosed.
  • Moist heat, physical therapy and medicines to ease symptoms
  • Use of "iron lung," a large machine to help a person breathe
  • Braces and crutches to assist standing and walking, as in FDR's case
There are almost no cases of polio today. In 1938, FDR established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later known as the "March of Dimes." It helped develop two vaccines. The first, by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh, in 1955, and the second, in 1962, by Dr. Albert Sabin, at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center – have virtually eliminated polio worldwide. Cases dropped from 350,000 in 1986 to fewer than 2,000 in 2006.
Arteriosclerosis – ("hardening of the arteries") This happens when cholesterol and other substances build up on artery walls and block blood circulation. The results can be angina (chest pain), congestive heart failure, heart attack and stroke.
  • Light exercise and change in diet, including reduced salt/sodium
  • Stopping smoking
  • Digitalis, a drug derived from the foxglove plant, to strengthen contraction of the heart muscle, slow the heart rate and help eliminate fluid

Exercise, diet and lifestyle changes such as weight loss.

Medicines: There are several new types of drugs unavailable during FDR's lifetime, including beta blockers and calcium channel blockers and the family of statin drugs.

Surgery, including angioplasty, bypass, and open-heart surgery are also new since FDR's time.

Hypertension – (high blood pressure) is called the "silent killer" because it usually has no symptoms. It occurs when blood moves through the arteries at a higher pressure than normal. It afflicts nearly 1 in 3 Americans. When not found and treated, it can cause an enlarged heart and heart failure; aneurysms (small bulges) in arteries that can burst; kidney failure; heart attack, stroke, kidney failure or amputation of the leg; vision changes and blindness.
  • Dietary changes: less salt/sodium
  • Lifestyle changes: reduce stress, lose weight
  • Give up smoking

FDR ignored his doctors.

Dietary changes, including following the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension" (DASH) eating plan. It features plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other heart healthy foods lower in salt/sodium.

Lifestyle changes—physical exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting alcohol intake and quitting smoking

Medicines: Unlike in FDR's time, a vast array of medicines are now available to help control high blood pressure, including diuretics, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, angiotensin antagonists, calcium channel blockers, alpha beta-blockers, nervous system inhibitors, vasodilators, and more.

Summer 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 3 Page 25