On January 22, 1973, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, died at his ranch in Johnson City, Texas, at age 65 from what was probably his fifth heart attack.
He was one of the hardest-working presidents ever and could have lived much longer if he had changed the lifestyle factors that caused his first heart attack at age 47. He had 20-hour work days, was always sleep deprived, chain-smoked, drank excessive amounts of alcohol, was overweight and did not exercise. He had eaten hamburgers and fried foods virtually every day, loved sugary desserts such as tapioca pudding, and almost never ate vegetables.
He Served in Every Elected National Office
He began his political career as a young man during the Roosevelt administration and was elected to all four elected federal offices: Representative, Senator, Vice President and President. He became President the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and went on to supervise passage of a huge volume of “Great Society” bills, arguably among the most significant legislation ever on civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection and education. However, he also increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which resulted in riots and crime throughout the country. His failure to bring the Vietnam war to an end caused him to decide that he would not seek a second term as President in 1968.
First Heart Attack
At age 47 (July 2, 1955), he suffered what he called “the worst heart attack a man could have and still live.” He spent the rest of his life being afraid of being alone. At the 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. He also lost weight and for the first time in his life, he tried to delegate some of his responsibilities.
Second Heart Attack?
When he was 55, 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 (probably correctly), but the final diagnosis released to the public was that he was suffering only from angina: chest pain caused by blocked arteries leading to his heart.
Third Heart Attack?
At age 63, after leaving the White House, he was hospitalized at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for chest pains. Again the public was told that he had “only an attack of angina,” but this too was probably a heart attack. He had gained more than 25 pounds after leaving the presidency, weighed 235 pounds and was told to lose weight. 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 and 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.”
Fourth Heart Attack
At age 64, in 1972, LBJ 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 extremely unhealthy 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 airport in the middle of the night. He found only Johnson’s empty wheelchair in the parking lot.
LBJ survived the airplane ride, but spent the last seven months of his life suffering from severe chest pain, the result of dead heart muscle from the heart attack in Charlottesville. 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 him at his ranch to tell him that peace in Vietnam was coming. Johnson told Nixon that he had just called his doctors because he had been suffering heart pains all night. Nixon responded, “I called you at the wrong time.”
Fifth and Fatal Heart Attack
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. He was just 65 years old.
Lousy Lifestyle Choices
Smoking: LBJ had chain-smoked three packs a day before his first heart attack, probably since he was a young man. He quit smoking until after he left the White House, but then began again and smoked until he died. 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 someone 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: As a Senator he ate a hamburger and French fries for lunch every day. He never accepted a healthful 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. His dinners were usually huge; one observer said, “he shoveled food into his mouth with his head bent low over his plate.” He ate sugar-loaded desserts and was known to gorge on tapioca pudding. In May 1966, he received a note from his White House chef that said, “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. He should have eaten lots of vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, and avoided fried foods, sugared drinks, sugar-added foods and other refined carbohydrates such as bakery products, as well as red meat and processed meats. He was never able to do that.
Alcohol: When he was the Senate majority leader, he drank alcohol almost every day and urged his staff to put less alcohol in his scotch and sodas than in those of his contacts so he would be able to make sounder decisions than they would. When he was President, he held a cup of Cutty Sark in his hand at every barbecue he hosted at his Texas ranch. He would ride around the ranch in his Lincoln Continental convertible, holding a glass of Scotch from a portable bar installed in the secret service car that followed him.
Lack of Exercise: He did not exercise, even after being told to do so after his heart attacks.
Stress: He did not suffer a heart attack when he was under the incredible 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, obesity, alcohol, unhealthful diet, no time to exercise and so forth). He was an incredibly domineering politician who often worked more than 20 hours a day, and frightened other politicians into supporting the legislation he proposed. Johnson was quoted as saying, “I don’t have ulcers. I give them!”
Lessons from LBJ’s Life and Death
Heart attacks are lifestyle diseases affecting 48 percent of North Americans today (Circulation, January 31, 2019). The vast majority of heart attacks can be preventedor delayed by appropriate lifestyle changes.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com