We know he was tall, honest and a great speaker, but did America’s most beloved president also have a serious genetic disorder? According to many in the scientific community, the answer is yes. A standing theory is that Abe Lincoln may have had Marfan syndrome, a serious genetic disorder that weakens the connective tissues that provide substance, shape and support to many parts of the body. Lincoln’s postmortem Marfan diagnosis has been the subject of magazines articles and medical books; based largely on his physical stature, which is very much in tune with that of many people with Marfan who tend to be tall and lanky, with long arms, fingers, legs and faces. As we know from his many potraits, Lincoln had these traits in spades.
In addition to elongating the limbs and features, Marfan affects the heart, specifically by weakening the aorta, which limits the heart’s ability to circulate blood to the rest of the body.
Doctors weren’t able to diagnose Marfan syndrome until well into the twentieth century, so without DNA testing, we’ll never know if President Lincoln had it. But because Lincoln may indeed have had Marfan, Presidents’ Day is a good time to raise awareness about a serious condition that many people have never heard of.
Marfan’s obscurity is actually surprising, since the condition affects one out of 5,000 Americans. Infants, children and adults of both sexes and all races and ethnicities have been diagnosed with the condition. Marfan can also affect the lungs, bones, joints, eyes and skin. Other complications caused by Marfan could include:
- collapsed lung
- sleep apnea
- pain in the stomach, lower back or legs from a weakening of the connective tissue that encases the spinal cord
- a sunken breastbone, which can lead to heart and lung problems
- early glaucoma
- dislocated lens of the eye
- early cataracts
- dental issues
While all of these conditions are concerning, the toll Marfan takes on the heart is the most troubling. For kids with Marfan, the aorta—the main artery that supplies oxygen-rich blood to the body—can become enlarged, stretch or tear, which can cause an internal leakage of blood. The weakened aorta wall can also form an aneurysm, which can be extremely painful and fatal if not treated in time.
Marfan syndrome can also cause problems with the heart’s mitral valve, which controls blood flow between the upper and lower chambers on the left side of the heart. The flaps of the mitral valve can be floppy and not close tightly, allowing blood to flow backwards during a heartbeat.
There’s no cure for Marfan syndrome, but treatments can help to delay or prevent complications—which is why timely diagnosis is so important. It’s far too late for President Lincoln, whose possible affliction from the condition wasn’t noticed until nearly one hundred years after his death, but for children born with the condition today there are plenty of options. With surgical and non-surgical treatments, and careful management, kids with Marfan syndrome can live relatively normal, healthy lives into adulthood.
For instance, Children’s Hospital Boston has a Cardiovascular Genetics Program made up of a multidisciplinary team that treats and researches Marfan and other genetic disorders.
Groups of people coming together for a greater good – Abe Lincoln would be proud.