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Facts on Thyroid Disease and the Elderly

By: Garry Crystal - Updated: 10 Jan 2011 | comments*Discuss
Thyroid Problems Underactive Overactive

Under and over active thyroid diseases are common amongst the elderly. Many elderly people are not aware that they actually have a thyroid problem but there are some common signs to be on the look out for.

Thyroid Disease in Older People

The thyroid is a gland located in the neck that produces hormones that regulate growth and metabolism. If problems occur with the thyroid it can cause a variety of health irregularities such as: weight gain; depression; bowel complaints; energy problems and mental disorders. Overactive (hyperthyroidism) and underactive (hypothyroidism) thyroid disease can affect elderly people. An overactive thyroid means that too much of the thyroid hormone is being produced and the functions of the body will increase, underactive means insufficient hormones are being produced.

Underactive Thyroid in the Elderly

Underactive thyroid disease is the most common thyroid problem in people over the age of 60. If left untreated it can lead to an increase in depression, anxiety, heart disease and obesity. But the symptoms of an underactive thyroid problem are very non specific in elderly people. It is thought that around one in four nursing home patients have undiagnosed underactive thyroid disease. Underactive thyroid problems are more common in women and affect around 15 out of every 1000 women, with the risk increasing with age.

Underactive Thyroid Symptoms

Early warning signs of an underactive thyroid problem can include depression, lack of energy, constipation, muscle craps and weight gain. Muscle aches, sensitivity to the cold and dry skin could also be early symptoms of an underactive thyroid problem. Memory loss and depression can also be early warning signs of an underactive thyroid in elderly people. If left untreated symptoms such as a reduced heart rate, anaemia, deafness, a puffy face and a hoarse voice can also occur. Lack of these symptoms does not mean there is not an underactive thyroid problem.

Symptoms of an Overactive Thyroid

There are many different signs of an overactive thyroid although having all of the symptoms is unlikely. Symptoms can include:

  • Mood swings and sleeplessness
  • Breathing difficulties, and increased weight gain and loss
  • Increased appetite and hyperactivity
  • Physical symptoms can include a swelling in the neck caused by an enlarged thyroid
  • Rapid heart rate when resting
  • Alopecia, trembling, shaking and moist skin
  • Elderly patients may only show one or two of any of these symptoms

Diagnosing a Thyroid Problem

With both under and over active thyroid problems one of the main diagnostic clues will be a family history of thyroid problems. Doctors will also take a blood sample to undertake a thyroid function test. From the blood the doctor will assess levels of thyroid stimulating hormone and thyroxine and triiodothyronine hormone levels. Thyroid problems are usually easily diagnosed by doctors and can be treated during the early stages. The symptoms, family history and blood tests will all be used to diagnose thyroid problems.

The Treatment for Thyroid Problems

The treatments given for thyroid problems will depend on the under or over active status. Underactive thyroid problems will be treated with medication called levothyroxine. The treatment is intended to replace the diminished thyroid hormones. Overactive thyroid treatment is intended to lower the hormones back to a normal level. Some forms of overactive thyroid such as subclinical thyroid may return to normal without treatment. Overt overactive thyroid problems may require specialist treatment, and surgery and radiotherapy may be options discussed by a doctor.

Special Care for Elderly People

One of the problems that can occur with elderly people who have thyroid problems is forgetfulnessm meaning that people can forget to take their thyroid medication. Elderly people who are prone to memory loss should be carefully monitored and given assistance with taking thyroid and other forms of medication. Doctors should carefully monitor thyroid patients and take regular blood tests.

Health Complications and Thyroid Problems

Health complications can occur in people with underactive thyroid problems if they are left untreated. This can include loss of brain function (coma) and kidney failure. A thyriod storm can occur when overactive sufferers have been undiagnosed. A thyroid storm can occur due to an infection or a stroke. Symptoms of thyroid storm can include yellow skin, fever, increased heartbeat and hallucinations. Emergency medical treatment will be required for those who do undergo a thyroid storm.

A large number of elderly people who suffer from thyroid problems go undiagnosed. One of the main problems is that many of the symptoms are simply overlooked as the natural signs of ageing. Anyone who does notice any of the symptoms of an under or over active thyroid should seek medical advice as soon as possible.

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