By Jim Miller
If your thyroid is out of whack, it can cause a number of health issues that can be tricky to detect because the symptoms often resemble other age-related health problems. In fact, as many as 30 million Americans have some form of thyroid disorder, but more than half aren’t aware of it.
What to Know
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck that has a huge job. It produces hormones (called T3 and T4) that help regulate the rate of many of your body’s activities, from how quickly you burn calories to how fast your heart beats. It also influences the function of the brain, liver, kidneys and skin.
If the gland is underactive and doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones, it causes body systems to slow down. If it’s overactive, and churns out too much thyroid, it has the opposite effect, speeding up the body’s processes.
The symptoms for an underactive thyroid (also known as hypothyroidism) — the most common thyroid disorder in older adults — will vary but may include fatigue and weakness, unexplained weight gain, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, joint pain, a puffy face, hoarseness, thinning hair, muscle stiffness, dry skin and depression.
Some patients may even develop an enlarged thyroid (goiter) at the base of the neck. However, in older adults, it can cause other symptoms like memory impairment, loss of appetite, weight loss, falls or even incontinence.
And the symptoms of an overactive thyroid (or hyperthyroidism) may include a rapid heart rate, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, increased appetite, weight loss, tremors of the hand, frequent bowel movements, sweating, as well as an enlarged thyroid gland. Too much thyroid can also cause atrial fibrillation, affect blood pressure and decrease bone density, which increases the risk of osteoporosis.
Those with the greatest risk of developing thyroid disorders are women who have a family history of the disease. Other factors that can trigger thyroid problems include: autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s or Graves disease; thyroid surgery; radiation treatments to the neck or upper chest; and certain medications including interferon alpha and interleukin-2 cancer medications, amiodarone heart medication and lithium for bipolar disorder.
If you have any of the aforementioned symptoms, or if you’ve had previous thyroid problems or notice a lump in the base of your neck, ask your doctor to check your thyroid levels. The TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) blood test is used to diagnosis thyroid disorders but depending on what they find, additional blood tests may be necessary.
If you are diagnosed with a thyroid problem, it’s easily treated. Standard treatment for hypothyroidism involves daily use of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine (Levothroid, Synthroid and others), which is an oral medication that restores adequate hormone levels.
And treatments for hyperthyroidism may include an anti-thyroid medication such as methimazole and propylthioracil, which blocks the production of thyroid hormones. Another option is radioactive iodine, which is taken orally and destroys the overactive thyroid cells and causes the gland to shrink. But this can leave the thyroid unable to produce any hormone and it’s likely that you’ll eventually become hypothyroid and need to start taking thyroid medication.
For more information on thyroid disorders, visit the American Thyroid Association at Thyroid.org.
Jim Miller is the author of Savvy Senior, a column that is published every issue of In Good Health.