How Presidents Died & How We Would Treat Them Now

February 15, 2019

Denver Health talks presidential ailments

Throughout the history of the United States of America, there have been 43 presidents who have governed our nation (45 presidential terms because Grover Cleveland served twice). With only four former presidents and one current president alive today, Denver Health experts dived into how our past Commanders-in-Chief died and how we would treat them now.

President James Garfield
President James Garfield died from a gunshot wound in 1881.
James Garfield: Gun Shot Wound

James Garfield was elected as the United States’ 20th president in 1881, after nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. His Presidency was cut short after 200 days when he was assassinated. He died from infection and internal hemorrhage after getting shot. One bullet grazed his shoulder and the other landed in his back, passing the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord before coming to rest behind his pancreas.

What is the Best Way to Treat Someone with This Type of Gunshot Wound?

"Medicine has come a long way since President Garfield was shot in 1881," said Eric Lavonas, M.D. a physician in Denver Health’s Emergency Department.

"The bullet did not strike any major organs, arteries, or veins. Today, the infection that ultimately took President Garfield’s life could have been treated with antibiotics. Since 1881, we’ve learned not to probe wounds with dirty hands, and in most cases, removal of the bullet is not necessary at all. Although stabilizing a bullet-shattered spine is a major operation even today, our spine surgeons have experience with thousands of such cases."

Presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson
Presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson both died of tuberculosis.
James Monroe and Andrew Jackson: Tuberculosis

James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, and Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, both died from tuberculosis, an airborne infectious disease that wasn’t curable. However, that’s changed as of today.

Tuberculosis (TB) is curable with medications that were not available when Presidents Jackson and Monroe were alive,” said Robert Belknap, M.D., Medical Director of Denver Public Health’s Denver Metro TB Clinic.

“Today, tuberculosis is preventable and treatable, but it still kills 1.5 million people globally each year due to barriers to diagnosis and treatment. At Denver Public Health, we focus on finding and treating people at risk for TB to protect their health and the health of those around them.”


President Herbert Hoover
President Herbert Hoover died from colon cancer in 1964.
Herbert Hoover: Colon Cancer

Herbert Hoover served as the 31st president of the United States from 1929 to 1933 during the Great Depression. He died in 1964 due to colon cancer. There are multiple questions we should ask to understand how to prevent and treat colon cancer.

What Can We Do for Colon Cancer Now?

“Screening is the most important thing to reduce the risk of cancer,” said Michael Cowen, RN, BSN, operations manager of Denver Health’s Gastrointestinal Lab and Neurodiagnostics. “The most effective way to do this is with regular screening colonoscopies (based on family history and between the ages of 50 to 75). The other screenings available are annual fecal occult blood/fecal immunochemical tests and genetic testing."

What Can People Do to Help Reduce Their Risks of Getting Colon Cancer?

“Age, family history and obesity are the highest risk factors for colorectal cancer, so regular screening and healthy diet and exercise are the most important ways to decrease the risk,” said Diogo Barbosa, patient navigator at Denver Health’s GI Lab and Neurodiagnostics. “Also, a history of smoking has been associated with cancers so cessation is very important as well.”

What’s Changed Since 1964 with Colon Cancer Health Care?

“Insurance now covers screening colonoscopies starting at age 50,” said Cowen. “Colonoscopies can be a preventative procedure if done regularly; polyps can turn into cancer if not removed, and we now have excellent technology to remove the polyps and also analyze them to determine the risk of cancer.”

President William Taft
President William Taft died from heart disease in 1930.
William Taft: Heart Disease

William Taft, the 27th president of the United States from 1909 to 1913, died from heart disease in 1930, a little more than a month after being diagnosed. Today, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. according to the CDC.

Can Someone Die from Heart Disease a Month After Being Diagnosed?

“Someone can die a month after being diagnosed with heart disease if they don’t take their medications and get their risk factors under control,” said Amanda Hajoglou, MS, RCEP, CCRP, lead clinical exercise physiologist, Denver Health Cardiology.

What is the Best Way to Prevent Heart Disease?

“The best way to prevent getting heart disease is to decrease risk factors you have control over like smoking, hypertension, diabetes, not exercising, high cholesterol, stress, drug and alcohol use,” Hajoglou said. “There are some risk factors you cannot control like gender and family history.”

President Martin Van Buren
President Martin Van Buren died from asthma and heart failure in 1862.
Martin Van Buren: Asthma

Martin Van Buren, the eighth president from 1837 to 1841, died of bronchial asthma and heart failure in 1862. Asthma is not something you think about when you hear someone has died nowadays, so is it still possible to die from asthma?

“Yes, unfortunately, it is still possible to die of asthma,” said Sarah Roark, M.D. medical director of Denver Health’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Team. “While rare, usually these are cases where care has not been sought quickly enough or the condition is hard to control at baseline. While asthma has been described for a long time, the interaction between the lungs and the immune system remains an area of intense study.”

How Can You Treat Asthma?

Dr. Roark recommends the following six treatments:

  1. Practice trigger avoidance. Triggers are factors that worsen a patient’s symptoms such as smoke, perfumes, allergies, feathers and certain animals. These vary from patient to patient so each person has to be aware of their symptoms and be an advocate for their health.
  2. Don’t smoke. All types of inhalant smoke can worsen symptoms or lead to an asthma exacerbation. 
  3. Stay healthy. Avoiding viruses by good hand washing, avoiding sick contacts and staying up to date on vaccines including the flu vaccine help asthma. Remaining active and keeping a healthy weight is also important. 
  4. Use an allergy treatment if applicable. Many patients with asthma also have allergies, including seasonal allergies. Treating these regularly with anti-histamines is part of a good asthma action plan.
  5. Control reflux. Reflux or “heartburn” can contribute to asthma symptoms. Lifestyle choices such as not eating before bed and avoiding certain foods can make a big difference. Medication may be recommended if these changes are not enough. 
  6. Use maintenance medication. Depending on the frequency and severity of symptoms, your doctor may recommend regular medications. A rescue medication such as an albuterol inhaler is helpful immediately but not long-lasting. If symptoms are persistent daily, regular treatments such as an inhaled corticosteroid like a Qvar inhaler or combination inhaler such as an Advair inhaler may be recommended daily. Regular treatment helps to keep symptoms under control.


A step-wise asthma action plan can be made with a health care provider. If there are questions, a patient may be referred to a pulmonologist (lung doctor) for guidance and treatment. 

President James Polk
President James Polk died from cholera in 1849.
James Polk: Cholera

James Polk, the 11th president of the United States from 1845 to 1849, died of cholera, an infection of the small intestine. Cholera is caused by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholera.

Is Cholera a Threat Today?

“Cholera remains a global threat to public health and an indicator of inequity and lack of social development,” said Judith Shlay, M.D., Associate Director of Denver Public Health.

“Thankfully, in the U.S. today, most people are not at risk for Cholera because we have been able to take a multifaceted public health approach to control cholera and to reduce deaths.

This includes a combination of surveillance, water, sanitation and hygiene, social mobilization, treatment and oral cholera vaccines. If anyone plans to travel in an area where there is cholera, please consider getting the vaccine – offered at Denver Public Health’s Travel Clinic to stay healthy.”