Snorer in Chief: Did President Taft Suffer from Sleep Apnea?

William Howard Taft, our 27th president, is perhaps best remembered for being our heaviest commander in chief (which is true) and for once getting stuck in a White House bathtub (which is not).

William Howard Taft photo
Photo by The Library of Congress. President (and possible sleep apnea sufferer) William Howard Taft.

Taft tipped the scale at 320 pounds when he took office in 1909, an era before obesity became a major public health concern. At the time, only some of obesity’s health risks were understood, but Taft knew his weight jeopardized his well-being, and he ultimately lost about 70 pounds. Taft’s death in 1930 at age 72 is attributed to a host of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease.

Obesity heightens one’s risk for heart problems, and it is also a risk factor for sleep apnea. Although sleep apnea didn’t have a name in Taft’s time, medical evidence suggests he likely suffered from this condition—which is now believed to afflict more than 20 million Americans—and that it may have contributed to other health problems he developed late in life.

Taft’s Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep apnea was not assigned a medical designation until 1965, decades after Taft’s death. But as a recent Philadelphia Inquirer report points out, the former president exhibited what are today viewed as classic sleep apnea symptoms:

  • Obesity (Taft weighed up to 340 pounds during his presidency)
  • Snoring (Taft was a regular and robust snorer)
  • Daytime drowsiness (Taft often—and sometimes publicly—fell asleep during the day)
  • Cognitive impairment (some friends and White House staff alleged that Taft occasionally had difficulty remembering details or processing information)
  • Hypertension (Taft was diagnosed with high blood pressure)

In the years between Taft’s demise and the “discovery” of sleep apnea, the condition associated with these symptoms became known as “Pickwickian syndrome” and “obesity hypoventilation syndrome.”

Lifestyle Changes and Sleep Apnea

Though sleep apnea treatments including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices and oral appliances were not available to Taft, other aspects of modern sleep apnea therapy were recommended. Specifically, Taft engaged in regular exercise, altered his diet, and lost weight.

After leaving office in 1913, Taft replaced fatty meats with fish, and he increased his consumption of fruits and vegetables. He took routine walks, and he eventually dropped his weight to about 270 pounds. Taft reported that he slept better and felt better, and medical tests confirmed improved blood pressure.

While Taft maintained a weight range between 270 and 280 pounds for the rest of his life, lasting cardiac damage had already been done. He developed atrial fibrillation and heart disease, which eventually forced him to resign from his role as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Taft is the only president to have also served on the Supreme Court.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

The most common treatments for sleep apnea are CPAP and oral appliances. CPAP delivers a continuous flow of oxygen during sleep through a mask attached to an air circulator. While CPAP has proven effective in reducing the symptoms and health risks associated with sleep apnea, many people find the masks uncomfortable and discontinue treatment.

Oral devices, sometimes referred to as “bite splints,” fit similarly to athletic mouthguards, but they are custom made to hold your jaw in an optimal position and promote an open air passage while you sleep. Oral appliances are highly recommended for sleep apnea sufferers who cannot adhere to CPAP.

Numerous studies indicate that sleep apnea treatment in conjunction with regular exercise and balanced diet reduces sleep apnea’s symptoms and life-threatening health risks.

Austin, Texas, dentist Dr. Dan Matthews has extensive experience helping patients stop snoring and restore healthy, restful sleep with oral appliances. Please call 512-452-2273 to schedule your sleep apnea consultation at our Bee Cave Road office.

Dan Matthews DDS
Dan Matthews Dan Matthews DDS The Park at Eanes Creek,
4407 Bee Cave Road
Building 2, Suite 221
Austin, Texas, 78746
(512) 452-2273
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