Identifying Thyroid Disease in Older Adults

Woman with Thyroid Disease


It may not be obvious. You might think it’s heart disease. Or a disorder of the nervous system.  Maybe it’s a bowel disease. The symptoms may be subtle at first, but with careful examination, your physician may conclude that it’s thyroid disease.  According to the American Thyroid Association, identifying thyroid disease in older adults can be challenging without a high index of suspicion.

One out of every 5 women over age 65 years has a higher than normal level of TSH (indicating hypothyroidism) and approximately 15% of all patients diagnosed with hyperthyroidism are over the age of 60 years. Seniors often accept the symptoms as par for the course in the aging journey or they mistake it for other conditions. It’s important to understand what thyroid disease looks like and when to visit your physician for diagnosis and treatment.


What is the thyroid gland?


The thyroid gland is an endocrine gland located in the lower front of the neck. It secretes a hormone into the blood, which helps the body to use energy, to keep warm, and to ensure the brain, heart, and muscles function effectively. But if there is too much thyroid hormone, also known as hyperthyroidism, every function in the body speeds up. Symptoms include:


  • Nervousness, irritability
  • Increased sweating
  • Heart racing
  • Hand tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Thinning of your skin,
  • Fine, brittle hair
  • Muscle weakness
  • Weight loss
  • More frequent bowel movements


Older adults, however, may experience fewer and less obvious symptoms. For example, heart palpitations may accompany minor physical exertion or difficulty sleeping and a change in bowel habits may occur at the same time.


On the other hand, when the body produces less thyroid hormone, the symptoms tend to be even less specific especially among older people. The symptoms of hypothyroidism include:


  • Dry skin
  • Thinning hair
  • Constipation
  • Low mood
  • Fatigue
  • Weight Gain



Diagnosis and Treatment


While diagnosing thyroid disease in seniors can be difficult, family history helps. A close family member with the disease is an important clue for doctors as well as a history of surgery on the neck and a past history of thyroid issues.


Older adults and their caregivers should keep a detailed medical history on hand to present to their physician. They should take note of any changes in their bodily functions and visit their doctor to locate the cause of their symptoms. If diagnosed with thyroid disease, there are various medications that can be prescribed to improve thyroid functioning.





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