Rumors about Putin’s health / What do external characteristics reveal?

He holds on to the table and state guests at a distance. / Rumors about Putin's health

There are many theories about Vladimir Putin’s possible illnesses. What do external features reveal? / Rumors about Putin’s health

The Russian President appears to be clinging to the table with his right hand as he speaks to his defense minister. The April video went around the world, sparking new rumors about Vladimir Putin’s health. There had already been guesswork because the Kremlin chief always kept foreign guests such as Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) at a maximum distance at a six-meter-long table before the Russian attack on Ukraine at the end of February.

Did he not want to be looked at in the face, many people asked themselves on the net. The assumptions ranged from Parkinson’s, thyroid cancer, stroke to dementia, as soon as Putin’s face seemed bloated or his walk wooden. But can a person’s physical appearance actually reveal anything about their health? What information does the skin provide as the largest human organ?

“Only a few diagnoses can be made from the mere sight,” says Christiane Bayerl from the Dermatological Society. “But various clinical signs draw attention,” she adds – far removed from the example of Putin. Depending on the signs, dermatologists would then carry out tissue tests, swabs for germs or ultrasound to see into the skin. But trying to draw conclusions with an untrained eye is difficult. “Unfortunately, many things are misinterpreted by laypeople.”

“Unfortunately, a lot is misinterpreted”

For example, a red coloring on the face can indicate high blood pressure, but it can also be completely irrelevant. A certain distribution of the redness could in turn be an indication of a fairly widespread inflammatory rosacea skin disease, explains the clinic director from Wiesbaden. “A very fair bronze complexion with darkly pigmented palms represents a disorder of adrenal cortex function.” Anorexia and malnutrition also show increased pigmentation.

According to Bayerl, when the thyroid gland is underactive, the skin is often dry, scaly, or edema – accumulation of fluid in the tissue – occurs around the eyes. Pollen allergy sufferers, for example, have to deal with reddened eyes. Eye sacs can be completely without a clinical picture as long as they are not bloody-brownish. Paying attention to external features and changes in the skin makes sense and is their “daily job” for dermatologists.

Putin’s health: “Never certainty, only probability”

There are also skin changes in a number of neurological diseases, says Peter Berlit, General Secretary of the Society for Neurology. If a person’s gait seems disturbed, this can sometimes “allow at least suspected diagnoses” – such as spasticity or Parkinson’s disease. Reduced facial expressions may indicate taking certain medications or mental illnesses, among other things. Dementia cannot be recognized by external factors, he clarifies. Regarding other external warning signs, he explains: “Involuntary movements of the extremities or spontaneous muscle twitching can be important symptoms of the disease.”

General practitioner Manfred Imbert also says that physical posture, motor skills, speed of movement or facial expressions can be used to derive indications of diseases. But: “One never has a certainty, but initially only a probability.” And it takes some experience to be able to classify external abnormalities or visible changes, which the layman is likely to lack as a rule, as the resident doctor from Alsdorf near Aachen points out. “When a car smokes and rattles, even the layman knows that something is wrong, but it is far from clear what exactly is wrong.”

“Like a chameleon”

With many diseases there is a whole range of possible symptoms, which would also match several other disorders. Example: “Not every tremor is Parkinson’s.” On the other hand, a rigid facial expression, delayed reaction or dizziness could very well indicate Parkinson’s. In the case of a stroke, too, the external signs are a bit “like a chameleon”, which can change its body shape and color significantly. Depending on the length of the circulatory disorder in the brain and depending on the area affected, there may be signs of paralysis, sometimes sensory disturbances, and in other cases speech disorders are triggered, explains Imbert.

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