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Was President Taft cognitively impaired?

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12:11pm, October 6, 2003
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President William Howard Taft had severe sleep apnea during his presidency from 1909 to 1913, which could explain his tendency to nod off at work or even while playing cards, medical and historical reports indicate.

The condition obstructs air intake, interrupting sleep so often that a person "gets no refreshing sleep" and is chronically drowsy during the daytime, says John G. Sotos, a cardiologist at Apneos Corp. in Belmont, Calif.

Sotos, after reviewing scores of historical documents, figures that excess weight gain contributed to Taft's sleep apnea. The researcher's report appears in the September Chest.

Obesity is a risk factor for sleep apnea, probably because fat in the neck obstructs the throat's air passage, Sotos says. Taft weighed more than 300 pounds throughout his presidency and had a large neck. He also snored when he slept, another sign of sleep apnea.

While sleep apnea wasn't recognized as a medical condition a century ago, today it's associated with difficulties in memory, attention, and learning. Therefore, sleep apnea might explain why Taft–who weighed less and had an exemplary record in public service before and after his 4 years in the White House–is seen by many historians as a blunderer while president, Sotos says.

After peaking at 340 pounds as president, Taft later dropped to around 265 pounds and stayed there. He served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court for 9 years before his death in 1930.

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