Thyroid Problems: What Adults over 50 Need to Know

Thyroid Problems: What Adults over 50 Need to Know

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The thyroid is a small endocrine gland located at the base of the neck. Despite its diminutive size, the health of the thyroid plays a massive role in how the body functions. As a part of the endocrine system, the thyroid is partially responsible for controlling the body's metabolic rate. When the endocrine system functions at a sub-optimal level, a variety of health problems can arise.

 

Thyroid Problems in Older Adults

 

In most developed countries, millions of adults suffer from thyroid disorders. Though thyroid problems affect both genders, women are between five and ten times more likely to be affected by thyroid conditions.

 

Thyroid problems occur more frequently in older adults. 10% of women will have a diagnosable thyroid condition by the age of 50. By the age of 60 this percentage jumps to 17% for women and 8% for men.

 

The two most common thyroid conditions are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism occurs when too little thyroid hormone is present. Hyperthyroidism is the result of excessive thyroid hormone.

 

Symptoms of thyroid problems are sometimes difficult to detect in seniors. Men may dismiss their problems as normal signs of aging; women may attribute their symptoms to menopause. It is estimated that up to 6% of seniors have undiagnosed thyroid conditions. If the following symptoms resonate with you, consult your doctor for further evaluation and treatment.

 

Common Symptoms of Hypo- and Hyperthyroidism

 

Hypothyroidism is especially common amongst seniors. Some studies even estimate that up to 25% of nursing home patients suffer from it!

 

Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

 - Fatigue

 - Depression

 - Forgetfulness and/or "brain fog"

 - Weight gain

 - Hair loss

 - Constipation

 - Low sex drive

 - Sore and stiff muscles

 - Dry skin or other skin conditions

 - Feeling chilly

 - and more...

 

Though not as common as hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism also affects many older adults.

 

Common symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:

 - Excelerated heart rate, rapid pulse, and/or heart palpitations

 - Tremors/shakiness

 - Hyperactivity

 - Weight loss

 - Agitation

 - Nervousness

 - Excessive perspiration

 - Forgetfulness and/or "brain fog"

 - Insomnia

 - Fatigue

 - and more...

 

Though less common, a number of structural conditions can also affect the thyroid. If you are suffering from the following symptoms, you may need to be screened for other thyroid conditions, such as toxic nodules and thyroid cancer.

 

Symptoms of structural thyroid conditions include:

 - Localized pain

 - Swollen lymph nodes

 - Difficulty swallowing

 - Difficulty breathing

 - and more...

 

It is important to note that most patients will only experience a handful of thyroid symptoms. Some individuals may be asymptomatic or experience only a single symptom. Simply put, thyroid conditions can present themselves in many different ways. When in doubt, ask your doctor to test your thyroid hormone levels.

 

Diagnosis of a Thyroid Problem

 

The process of diagnosing a thyroid problem is generally fairly straight-forward. Most doctors will use a blood test as a preliminary diagnostic tool. Blood tests can be used to detect the TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) level as well as the levels of T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (tri-iodothyronine) hormones in the body. Abnormal TSH levels are most commonly used to diagnose thyroid conditions.

 

If you suspect you may have a thyroid problem, you may also wish to have your thyroid antibody levels tested. Sometimes a developing thyroid problem will result in a normal TSH and an abnormal antibody count. If this is the case, you may need to treat your condition or monitor its progress.

 

Note that hypo- and hyperthyroidism are umbrella terms. Your doctor may present you with a more specific diagnosis, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis (hypothyroidism) or Grave's disease (hyperthyroidism).

 

Most doctors will also use your family's medical history to aid in the diagnostic process. If you have a family history of thyroid problems or other autoimmune conditions, be sure to inform your doctor.

 

Thyroid Treatment Options

 

Most seniors diagnosed with hypothyroidism will begin taking medication to manage their condition. Hypothyroidism patients will generally take synthetic thyroxine (T4) once daily to support the thyroid. Other potential treatment options include natural thyroxine pills and T3 pills.

 

The treatment of hyperthyroidism is somewhat more complicated, as the condition often affects the heart. Seniors with heart conditions and hyperthyroidism must therefore be carefully treated. Treatment often includes antithyroid drugs. Beta-adrenergic blockers are sometimes used to slow rapid heart rates. Radioactive iodine can also be used as a more permanent solution. Though thyroid surgery may be an option for some patients, many doctors advise against it for seniors.

 

Different doctors often have different opinions regarding treatment options. If you are uncomfortable with your doctor's treatment plan, don't be shy about looking for a second, third, or fourth opinion.

 

In Conclusion:

 

Thyroid problems affect a significant number of older adults. Many, unfortunately, remain undiagnosed. If you've been feeling less than your best, ask your doctor to perform a blood test to

check your thyroid levels. A proper diagnosis could drastically improve your health and well-being.

 

 

 

 

Photo: © naumas/ fotolia.com

Editor, 06/02/2016

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