You may not have ever thought about thyroid disorders, but they can be common for seniors over 80 years old. In fact, 1 in 10 seniors over 80 has problems with their thyroid. But what exactly is the thyroid? And what types of thyroid disorders are there?
Let's dive into thyroid disorders and how they can affect older adults.
Understanding the Thyroid Gland
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck, below the Adam's apple. While small, it plays a significant role in maintaining your overall health and well-being.
The thyroid gland secretes hormones that regulate various bodily functions, including metabolism, energy production, and body temperature. It helps control the heart, digestive tract, bone maintenance, and even brain health. Specifically, the thyroid produces thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
The brain sends signals to the thyroid, telling it how much of each hormone to produce. When the thyroid delivers these hormones in the proper amounts, the body can work in harmony. However, when the thyroid doesn't function properly, it may secrete too much of a hormone or too little of a hormone. Ultimately, the levels of thyroid hormones effects can impact your health and quality of life.
Common Types of Thyroid Disorders
There are several types of thyroid disorders, or thyroid diseases, that impact the amount of thyroid hormones produced. The most common are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
- Hypothyroidism: This condition occurs when the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough hormones. As a result, the body's metabolism slows down. This causes the body to use energy more slowly than usual. It can result in symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, depression, and cold intolerance.
- Hyperthyroidism: In contrast, hyperthyroidism is an overproduction of thyroid hormones. This causes the body to use energy more quickly than usual. It causes symptoms like rapid weight loss, anxiety, heart palpitations, and excessive sweating.
Causes of Thyroid Disorders
Generally, women are more likely than men to develop thyroid disorders. And older adults are more likely to develop hypothyroidism than younger adults. But thyroid disorders can affect individuals of all backgrounds and ages.
Below are some of the common factors and conditions that may contribute to thyroid conditions:
- Autoimmune Disorders: Certain autoimmune conditions attack the thyroid gland. For example, Hashimoto's thyroiditis causes inflammation of the thyroid and can lead to hypothyroidism. Graves' disease causes the thyroid gland to produce too many hormones, resulting in hyperthyroidism.
- Iodine Deficiency: Your diet can affect your thyroid health as well. The thyroid needs iodine to produce hormones properly. A lack of iodine in your diet can lead to hypothyroidism, particularly in areas with low iodine levels in the soil.
- Genetics: Some thyroid disorders may run in families, suggesting a genetic component. If you have a family history of thyroid problems, you may be at higher risk.
- Environmental Factors: Exposure to certain environmental toxins, like radiation or pollutants, can contribute to thyroid problems.
- Medications: Some medications can impact the thyroid. For example, medications with high amounts of iodine or radioactive treatments.
- Thyroids nodules: The thyroid can develop small nodules, which are areas of swelling or small lumps. Most nodules are harmless, but some can affect the thyroid's production of hormones.
- Diabetes: Individuals with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing thyroid disease than other adults. Type 1 diabetes, especially, is tied closely to thyroid disease.
Symptoms of Thyroid Disorders
The symptoms of thyroid disorders can be diverse and often overlap with other health issues. This can make it challenging for individuals and even doctors to detect thyroid problems. Let's look at the symptoms of hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
Signs of Hypothyroidism
Below are some of the most common symptoms of an underactive thyroid.
- Weight gain
- Dry skin and hair
- Muscle weakness
- Cold intolerance
- Frequent, heavy menstrual periods
Signs of Hyperthyroidism
Below are some of the most common symptoms of an overactive thyroid.
- Rapid weight loss
- Anxiety and irritability
- Heart palpitations
- Excessive sweating
- Hand tremors
- Heat intolerance
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Vision problems or eye irritation
If you notice these signs in an aging loved one, encourage them to speak with a doctor. These signs are not just signs of aging and could indicate thyroid problems or other serious conditions.
Diagnosing Thyroid Disorders
Diagnosing thyroid disorders can actually be quite challenging, especially in older adults. As mentioned, the symptoms of thyroid disorders match symptoms of other health conditions or may be attributed to aging.
To diagnose thyroid disorders, doctors may start with a physical exam. They can perform various tests, including blood tests to measure thyroid hormone levels. They might also conduct imaging tests, such as ultrasound or radioactive iodine scans. These thyroid scans can assess the thyroid's structure and function.
The treatment for thyroid disorders varies depending on the condition and its severity.
Treatment for Hypothyroidism
There is one main treatment option for hypothyroidism: medication. Synthetic thyroid hormone replacement medication (e.g., levothyroxine) to restore hormone levels to normal. With the addition of this type of medication, your symptoms should go away so you can maintain your regular routine.
There are several treatment options to address high levels of thyroid hormones in the body.
- Medications to stop the thyroid from producing hormones
- Radioactive iodine therapy to damage cells in the thyroid, reducing hormone production
- Beta blockers to help manage symptoms
- Thyroid surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland
Note that surgery may not be a recommended treatment option for older adults, depending on their overall health. If surgery is a viable option, you will need to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of your life.
Living with a Thyroid Disorder
Ultimately, if you or a loved one has a thyroid disorder, you can maintain quality of life and independence. However, it's important to consistently monitor and manage your condition. Work with your healthcare provider to develop a personalized treatment plan to manage your symptoms.
If you need a helping hand to manage your condition, reach out to Caring Senior Service. Our professional caregivers can drive you to and from appointments, remind you to take medications, and assist with daily activities when you don't have energy. Reach out to your local Caring team to learn more.