How to Spot Signs of a Thyroid Problem
If your thyroid gland is not properly functioning, it can cause many health issues that are difficult to detect because symptoms often resemble other age-related health problems. It is estimated that as many as 30 million Americans have some form of thyroid disorder but more than half are not aware of their condition.
What to Know
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck that has a vital job. It produces hormones, T3 and T4, which help regulate 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 thyroid gland is underactive and does not produce enough thyroid hormones, it causes the body's systems to slow down. If it is overactive, it has the opposite effect and speeds up the body's processes.
The most common thyroid disorder in older adults is an underactive thyroid, which is known as hypothyroidism. The symptoms of hypothyroidism vary but may include fatigue, unexplained weight gain, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, joint pain, puffiness in the face, hoarseness, thinning hair, muscle stiffness, dry skin and depression. Some patients may also develop an enlarged thyroid (goiter) at the base of the neck. Older adults with hypothyroidism can also experience memory impairment, loss of appetite, weight loss, falls or incontinence.
For those with an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism, symptoms include a rapid heart rate, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, increased appetite, weight loss, tremors of the hand, frequent bowel movements, sweating and an enlarged thyroid gland. Too much thyroid hormone can also cause atrial fibrillation, an increase in blood pressure or a decrease in bone density which increases the risk of osteoporosis.
Women who have a family history of the disease have the greatest risk of developing thyroid disorders. 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, interleukin-2, amiodarone and lithium.
If you are experiencing any symptoms 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 diagnose thyroid disorders. If the initial test result is high, your doctor may order additional blood tests to confirm your levels of T3 or T4.
If you are diagnosed with a thyroid problem, it is easily treated. Standard treatment for hypothyroidism involves daily use of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine (Levothroid, Synthroid and others). This is an oral medication that restores adequate hormone levels for many individuals.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism can include antithyroid medications such as methimazole and propylthiouracil. It works by blocking the production of new thyroid hormones. Another treatment option is radioactive iodine (RAI). RAI is taken orally and destroys the overactive thyroid cells and causes the gland to shrink. Because RAI leaves the thyroid unable to produce any hormone, a side effect is hypothyroidism. This condition can be easily treated with thyroid medication.
For more information on thyroid disorders, visit the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.
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