Did you know that January is Thyroid Awareness Month? Most people have heard about the thyroid gland, but may not realize its importance or symptoms of thyroid disease. Of the estimated 20 million Americans that have some of form of thyroid disease, more than half of them don’t know they have it or have been misdiagnosed. According to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), more than 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime. However, for older people, the symptoms of a thyroid condition may often be ignored or mistaken as part of the aging process. That’s why it’s important for seniors to learn more about thyroid health and the signs of potential problems.
Small gland, big impact
The thyroid is the butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck. It regulates metabolism or the rate that the body produces energy from nutrients and oxygen. The thyroid also produces a hormone that influences every cell, tissue and organ in the body. When it’s working properly, this small gland supports critical body functions such as energy and heart rate.
There are two main forms of thyroid disease: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid does not produce enough hormone. When the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormone, the body uses energy slower than it should. Symptoms of this condition can include extreme fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, muscle weakness, thinning hair, elevated cholesterol, joint swelling, depression, forgetfulness, and weight gain. Hyperthyroidism is a condition that occurs when the thyroid produces too much hormone. The extra hormone levels cause the body to use energy faster and speed up the metabolism. Symptoms include unintentional weight loss, rapid heartbeat, nervousness, irritability, increased sweating, trouble sleeping, more frequent bowel movements, thinning skin, and fine, brittle hair.
Hypothyroidism is very common in people over the age of 60 and the likelihood increases with age, according to the ATA. However, both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can be difficult to recognize in older people because the symptoms can be subtle or masquerade as other ailments. The symptoms may even be confused with signs of aging. For example, a slower metabolism and fatigue can easily be mistaken as “just a part of getting older” and mask the problem of an underactive thyroid. Older people with an overactive thyroid may have even more trouble detecting their condition because they may experience less symptoms than younger people. Although, seniors may face challenges in detecting symptoms, family history is one important factor that can help in knowing their risk of developing thyroid problems. In many cases, problems like hypothyroidism run in families. Older people who have close relatives with thyroid disease should pay attention to changes in their bodies and consider being tested. If you think you may be experiencing signs of thyroid disease, make an appointment with your healthcare provider and speak to them about testing.