There’s a misconception that heart disease is the most common affliction for older people. It isn’t. Thyroid disease is. According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, nearly 30 million Americans suffer with thyroid disease. More common than heart disease and diabetes, thyroid disease affects women five times more than men on average.
It’s important to know what the thyroid is and what it does. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland on the front of the neck. It uses iodine to produce hormones that control how the body’s cells use energy. Complicating the matter is that the thyroid is controlled by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus; a problem with either of these can become an issue for the thyroid as well.
Thyroid disease can take on multiple “shapes”, so to speak. There is hypothyroidism, or an under active thyroid. This is a common condition and occurs when the thyroid is not producing enough of its hormones. These hormones affect the cellular processes of growth and development, meaning a problem can negatively impact many areas of the body.
Fatigue and sluggishness, depression, and seemingly unexplained weight gain can be symptoms of hypothyroidism. Menstrual changes in women, and high cholesterol levels unrelated to the diet can also signify hypothyroidism.
On the flip side is hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid. This is a less common condition, but just as problematic. When the thyroid produces too much of its hormones, the body’s processes speed up and the metabolism is driven at too fast a speed. This can mean an increased heartbeat, intolerance of heat, hair loss, and nervousness of a level that leads to panic attacks.
In addition to these thyroid conditions, there are other complications that can occur with the thyroid. Goiter, an enlarged thyroid gland, can occur due to either hypo- or hyperthyroidism, or sometimes from a baseline of normal thyroid function. Additionally, cysts of varying sizes can appear on the thyroid and potentially compress other tissues or structures in the neck. Lastly, but not least, is thyroid cancer. This occurs three times more often in women than men, but thankfully there is a very high cure rate with early detection.
The American Thyroid Association recommends that everyone have their thyroid checked if they are over 35 years old, with regularly scheduled check-ups every five years. Risks of thyroid problems increase for women over 60, and can be especially prominent for those with a family history of thyroid disease. People who have had radiation treatment in their neck or upper chest areas are also at greater risk for thyroid disease.
The reasons to have the thyroid check far outnumber the reasons not to, and can improve quality of life dramatically. Caregivers and loved ones can do their part by helping a senior make sure they are able to get to the doctor for a checkup. In the modern era of medicine, seniors can be easily kept on top of the situation, and detect thyroid problems early when treatments and cures are most effective.