Celebrities touched by chronic disease

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published August 6, 2021

Key Takeaways

In 2020, the number of people with incurable, chronic disease was estimated to be 157 million, with 81 million having comorbid conditions, according to the National Health Council. Overall, about half of all adult Americans have such conditions.

The thing about chronic disease is that it doesn’t discriminate. No matter how rich, popular, or influential you are, developing a chronic condition is always a possibility. Here are four celebrities who were—or are—affected by serious medical conditions. 

Stephen Curry

Widely considered one of the best three-point shooters ever to grace a basketball court, superstar Steph Curry copes with a special type of astigmatism that so severely distorts the shape of the cornea that it can’t be treated with regular glasses. It’s called keratoconus.

According to the authors of a German-language review, keratoconus was first described in 1736. In the 19th century, various surgical procedures were proposed to treat it, including surgically repositioning the pupil away from the cone, cauterization of the cone to create a scar, iris incarceration to produce a slit-like pupil, and full-thickness elliptical excision of the cone. Although creative, none of these procedures targeted the etiology, and instead resulted in serious damage.

In 1936, Ramon Castroviejo performed the first corneal transplant for keratoconus. Today, those with the condition can regain accurate sight with scleral lenses. These contact lenses lie on the sclera, and form a fluid layer between the eye and the device consisting of preservative-free saline solution.

According to the authors of the article, crosslinking is another option. “Corneal cross-linking was revolutionary in the treatment of keratoconus. There have been several randomized controlled trials that have found it to be safe and effective to halt ectatic progression. Crosslinking was recently approved by the FDA for progressive keratoconus.”

Of note, cross-linking is a minimally invasive procedure used to strengthen the cornea. According to the Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan, “Corneal cross-linking is a minimally invasive procedure that uses ultraviolet light and eye drops in order to strengthen the collagen fibers in the cornea. The procedure is used for patients with keratoconus, a condition in which the cornea grows thin and weak.”


Young, virile, and intelligent, by all appearances JFK led a charmed life. But despite appearances, JFK dealt with various health struggles, and all was not right in Camelot.

“President John F. Kennedy (JFK) had a complex medical history that is now thought to be an autoimmune polyglandular syndrome type 2 with Addison’s disease and hypothyroidism. He also had gastrointestinal symptoms from adolescence, which now fit well with celiac disease. In addition, he had a chronic back problem, which contributed to a chronic pain syndrome,” according to the authors of a review published in BMJ

In terms of debilitating pain, JFK coped with severe pain secondary to osteoporosis, which is a common comorbidity of Addison disease. In an article published in Practical Pain Management, “Because there are no blood tests recorded at the time, we will never know exactly what caused his osteoporosis—insufficient cortisol caused by his autoimmune disease or a combination of pain-induced release of cortisol combined with the administration of exogenous steroids.”

The author goes on to provide a timeline of JFK’s series of diagnoses. In 1947, he was diagnosed with Addison disease while traveling to England. In 1950 and 1951, x-rays demonstrated narrowing of the fourth lumbar vertebrae, as well compression fractures. While a junior senator in 1954, his lumbar vertebrae collapsed. 

“He was in such severe constant pain that he required crutches. Despite the risk of performing an operation in someone with adrenal insufficiency, JFK decided that the choice between walking and not walking was worth the risk,” the author wrote.

Abraham Lincoln

Although we’ll never know for sure, Honest Abe may have had Marfan syndrome. This diagnosis would surely explain his long limbs, which are a common feature of the disease.

This connective tissue disorder affects many structures, such as the bones, lungs, heart, and blood vessels. Marfan syndrome is an autosomal dominant disorder linked to the FBN1 gene on chromosome 15, which codes for a protein called fibrillin that is necessary for the formation of elastic fibers found in connective tissue. Without the support of fibrillin, tissues are weakened, and walls of arteries can rupture among other issues. 

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Beta blockers have been used to control some of the cardiovascular symptoms of Marfan syndrome; however, they are not effective against the skeletal and ocular problems, which can also be serious. A related disease has been found in mice, and it is hoped that the study of mouse fibrillin synthesis and secretion, and connective tissue formation, will further our understanding [of] Marfan syndrome in humans.”

Trivia: Which other medical disorder was Abe Lincoln thought to have? Click here

Richard Pryor

In 1986, Richard Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the Mayo Clinic. In the years before his death of a heart attack in 2005, he needed a motorized scooter to move.

Multiple sclerosis is a complicated and poorly elucidated disease. It impacts younger adults and derides functionality, finances, and quality of life. 

According to the authors of a review published in The Lancet, recent advances in the management of MS have been marked by two developments.

“The first is the explosion in the number of disease-modifying treatments (DMTs) available for relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), in contrast to the paucity of effective treatments for the progressive forms of the condition, coupled with the lack of a major effect of DMTs on relapse-unrelated disability,” they wrote.

“The second development is the greater focus on active management, with the patient at the centre. The emergence of effective treatments has created an impetus to diagnose as early as possible and encourage interventions at the earliest point in time. This is particularly apposite given the emerging evidence for activity prior to any overt clinical manifestations,” they added.

The authors noted that these developments may have contributed to enhanced longevity in MS, as well as slowing decompensation of the disease and the evolution to secondary-progressive MS.

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