Each year, the health care community recognizes January as Thyroid Awareness Month. Though it is small, it is mighty and plays a vital role in keeping your body healthy, and there are many health problems that are rooted in the thyroid.
Many of us have heard of the thyroid but may not realize all that it can do. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck. The thyroid gland is a part of the endocrine system and plays a large role in the body by influencing the function of many important organs, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin. It is responsible for regulating calcium levels, menstrual cycles and the nervous system. Problems begin when the thyroid gland produces too little or too much hormone.
Today, some 30 million Americans are affected by thyroid disease. If you think you or a loved one may have a thyroid condition, you should learn about diagnosis, symptoms and treatments.
Hyperthyroidism is where your thyroid works more actively than it should. Hyperthyroidism is most common in patients under age 50 and is marked by an enlarged thyroid gland, plus insomnia, a rapid heart rate, anxiety, weight loss, increased appetite, excessive perspiration, and diarrhea. However, the senior hypothyroidism patient may only have one or two of these symptoms, which can delay or prevent accurate diagnosis.
Although hyperthyroidism is associated with more energy, the body breaks down after a while, leading the person to feel more tired.
Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
Oversensitivity to heat
Dry, thin skin
Dry or gritty eyes/double vision
Hypothyroidism means that your thyroid is working slower than it should. Hypothyroidism is most common in patients over 60, and the incidence of this disease increases with age. Symptoms in the older patient are often unspecific; and since older adults can also suffer memory impairment, weight loss, loss of appetite, it’s easy to see why hypothyroidism is so under-diagnosed.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
Sensitivity to cold/heat
Weight gain and inability to lose weight
Slow movements, speech and thoughts
Itchy and/or sore scalp
Muscle aches, pains and weakness
Dry and tight feeling skin
Brittle hair and nails
Numbness in limbs
There are many possible causes of hypothyroidism, including autoimmune disease, certain medicines, or even surgical removal of a part of the thyroid gland.
Hashimoto’s disease is also known as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis. It’s the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States, affecting about 14 million Americans. It can occur at any age, though it’s most common in middle-aged women. The disease occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and slowly destroys the thyroid gland and its ability to produce hormones.
Some people with mild cases of Hashimoto’s disease may have no obvious symptoms. The disease can remain stable for years, and symptoms are often subtle, which means they also mimic symptoms of many other conditions.
mild weight gain
dry, thinning hair
pale, puffy face
heavy and irregular menstruation
intolerance to cold
an enlarged thyroid, or goiter
While the only way to know for sure if you have a thyroid disease of any type is to have a blood test that measures your thyroid hormone levels, if you have concerns, you can do a preliminary at-home test. Hold a hand mirror towards your neck, above the collarbones where you can see the area below your Adam’s apple.
Tilt the head back, and take a sip of water.
Swallow the water, and watch your neck for signs of bulging.
Repeat the steps a few times to make sure you don’t see obvious signs of bulging.
If you discover a bulge, nodule or an enlarged gland, contact your physician.
To confirm whether there is a thyroid concern, your physician may perform a thyroid-stimulating hormone test. This blood test measures whether the gland is working properly.
There are several causes, but some common causes can be attributed to autoimmune disease, certain types of medications, thyroid surgery or radiation therapy. Anyone can develop thyroid problems, but women who are 60 years of age or older seem to be more susceptible.
Hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication, iodine, or hormones, and the other conditions can be addressed with therapy or surgery. Both hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be treated with medicine or other approaches, which can greatly improve quality of life.
Luckily, thyroid prescriptions can usually get symptoms under control. However, it’s important that family members and caregivers of senior loved ones keep abreast of new symptoms that may occur because medications oftentimes need to be changed, or dosages increased or decreased.