HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT
According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), thyroid disease is a more common disorder than diabetes or heart disease, however, many patients remain undiagnosed.
The impact of Thyroid Disease
- Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.
- Undiagnosed thyroid disease may put patients at risk for certain serious conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and infertility.
- Women are eight to 10 times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.
- Pregnant women with undiagnosed or inadequately treated hypothyroidism have an increased risk of miscarriage, preterm delivery, and severe developmental problems in their children.
- Most thyroid cancers respond to treatment, although a small percentage can be very aggressive.
- Most thyroid diseases are life-long conditions that can be managed with medical attention.
To raise awareness about the thyroid gland and symptoms of thyroid disease, January has been designated Thyroid Awareness Month. Most of us have heard about the thyroid glands, but we may not realise the importance of the gland or that we may have symptoms of this disease. Therefore, this month is dedicated to talking about thyroid disease; the conditions and symptoms, importance of diagnosis and treatment, as well as the many issues thyroid patients face day-to-day.
In addition, health experts hope that publicizing information about thyroid diseases will educate people and encourage them to visit their physician with confidence. Diagnosing thyroid disease in seniors can be difficult because some of the symptoms are also associated with ageing or other medical conditions, however, these can also be signs of thyroid disease, as well.
The Thyroid Gland
The thyroid is a hormone-producing gland that regulates the body’s metabolism, the rate at which the body produces energy from nutrients and oxygen, and affects critical body functions, such as energy level and heart rate.
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the base of the neck. Although small in size, the gland plays a large role by producing thyroid hormone which influences the function of many of the body’s most important organs, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin. When the thyroid gland is not producing the right amount of hormone (either too much or too little), problems can start to arise.
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 diarrhoea. 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.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Increased sweating
- Oversensitivity to heat
- Increased appetite
- Weight loss
- Dry, thin skin
- Hair loss
- 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 is 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
- Poor appetite
- Dry and tight feeling skin
- Brittle hair and nails
- Numbness in limbs
There are many possible causes of hypothyroidism, including an autoimmune disease, certain medicines, or even surgical removal of a part of the thyroid gland.
A more serious concern involving the thyroid gland is thyroid cancer, which can develop independent of the above thyroid disease. According to the AACE, about 60,000 cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed annually in the US. In most cases, thyroid cancer has a good prognosis and high survival rates, especially when diagnosed in its early stages.
Thyroid Disease Diagnosis
If you think you or your loved one may have an undiagnosed thyroid condition, you can start by doing a self-check of you (or your loved one’s) neck for lumps, which could be an indication of a thyroid condition.
How To Perform A Self-Check:
Hold a hand mirror towards your neck, above the collar bones 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 do not see obvious signs of bulging.
If you discover a bulge, nodule, or an enlarged gland, or concerned about your symptoms, contact your physician.
The only way to know for sure if you have thyroid disease of any type is to have a blood test that measures your thyroid hormone levels. 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. It is highly recommended to get tested if you are a senior over 60, have family members diagnosed with the disease or believe you have symptoms.
Diagnosing thyroid disease in seniors can be difficult because some of the symptoms are also associated with ageing or other medical conditions. It is natural to assume symptoms such as memory issues, constipation or weight gain are part of the ageing process. However, these can also be signs of thyroid disease.
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 successfully with medicine or other approaches, so it is important to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare physician and identify treatment methods which will greatly improve the quality of your life.
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