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Thyroid Disease and Seniors

As seniors embrace the golden years, they have many things to look forward to retirement, watching their children begin families of their own, playing with grandchildren, and hopefully enjoying a full life with the wisdom of age on their side.

Published: Feb 25, 2014

Thyroid Disease and Seniors

As seniors embrace the golden years, they have many things to look forward to - retirement, watching their children begin families of their own, playing with grandchildren, and hopefully enjoying a full life with the wisdom of age on their side. Along with the joys of aging comes the knowledge that their body is changing inside and out. Some changes, due to the normal aging process, may be mild while others can become a downright nuisance. Either way, it is important for seniors to know his or her body and be aware of normal changes versus those that warrant a visit to the doctor.

One condition seniors have the potential to develop as they age is thyroid disease, which affects the body's metabolic rate. Hyperthyroidism is caused by an increased metabolism when the thyroid produces too many hormones. Hypothyroidism is caused by underproduction of thyroid hormones, and results in low metabolic rate. Early detection and proper treatment of either can prevent the disease from getting worse and leading to other critical conditions.

Hypothyroidism is more common in older adults but hard to recognize because symptoms generally occur over the course of many years. The frequency of multiple symptoms decreases with age. Seniors suffering this disease may have only one or two symptoms. Presentation of symptoms depends largely on the deficiency of hormone levels in your body.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism vary, depending on how low thyroid hormone levels are, and may include: fatigue; sluggishness; increased sensitivity to cold; constipation; pale, dry skin; a puffy face; hoarseness; high cholesterol levels; brittle hair and nails; unexplained weight gain; muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness; menstrual changes; muscle weakness; pain, stiffness, or swelling in joints; depression.  

The risk of developing hypothyroidism increases if:

o    You are a female over the age of 50 (more women suffer hypothyroidism than men)
o    You (or close relatives) suffer from autoimmune disease
o    You have taken radioactive iodine and / or medicines for hyperthyroidism
o    You have had radiation in the upper neck and / or chest area
o    You have had surgery on your thyroid gland
o    You have an iodine deficiency

Treatment for hypothyroidism involves medication containing the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine, which restores normal levels of hormones produced by your thyroid gland. Typically, once proper dosage is determined, you should feel better within a few weeks.

Hyperthyroidism presents itself in various ways, making it a challenge to diagnose, as some symptoms are indicative of other health conditions. As with hypothyroidism, seniors may present only one or two symptoms of this disease. Medications can cause a few of the same symptoms or even mask the signs of this disease.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include: sudden weight loss; rapid or irregular heartbeat; pounding of the heart; increased appetite; nervousness, anxiety or irritability; tremors in the hands and / or fingers; sweating; menstrual changes; increased sensitivity to heat; changes in bowel patterns; an enlarged thyroid gland; fatigue; muscle weakness; difficulty sleeping. 

The risk for developing hyperthyroidism may increase if:

o    A close family member has hyperthyroidism
o    You have Graves or Plummer's disease
o    You suffer thyroiditis (swelling or pain in the thyroid gland)
o    You have toxic adenoma (nodules on the thyroid gland)

Hyperthyroidism can be treated by radioactive iodine or other medications that slow hormone production. Removal of part of the thyroid gland is sometimes successful but not often recommended in older patients.

Because seniors experience changes due to the aging process that may include various symptoms of other conditions, thyroid disease is a bit more difficult to diagnose within this age group than it is in younger generations. Signs of thyroid disease can be mild and may go ignored. This makes it critical for seniors to be aware of their bodily changes and the symptoms and risks of thyroid disease. When diagnosed and properly treated, thyroid disease can be managed and a good quality of life can be maintained throughout the golden years.

References:
Mayo Clinic. Hypothyroidism. Retrieved on November 18, 2011 from mayoclinic.com/health/hypothyroidism/DS00353/DSECTION=symptoms
Mayo Clinic. Hyperthyroidism. Retrieved on November 18, 2011 from mayoclinic.com/health/hyperthyroidism/DS00344/METHOD=print&DSECTION=all
American Thyroid Association (2005). Thyroid disease in the older patient. Retrieved on November 20, 2011 from thyroid.org/patients/brochures/
ThyroidDisorderOlder_broch.pdf

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