It is rather amazing that a gland as small as the thyroid (which is located in your neck and is shaped like a butterfly) can have such an enormous impact on your health and overall well-being. Throughout life, this “master gland” is constantly producing hormones that influence metabolism, which in turn impacts everything from your heartbeat to your vision to the regularity of your bowels. Thyroid conditions affect more than 12 percent of the U.S. population; that’s over 20 million Americans. But up to 60 percent of those people do not realize they are suffering from thyroid problems. That’s because the symptoms of both hyperthyroidism (thyroid hormone levels that are too high) and hypothyroidism (when levels are too low) are easily confused with other conditions ranging from depression to stress to simply overeating. As people age, our bodies do experience normal age-related changes, and it’s easy to discount problems by saying, “I’m just getting older” or “That’s normal for my age,” but are you actually suffering from symptoms that could be the result of hypothyroidism, or an under-active thyroid? Hypothyroidism is not an issue isolated to younger adults! Have you considered that symptoms like fatigue, depression, weight gain, constipation, and dry skin could actually be caused by low thyroid levels in your body? While these symptoms could be easily attributed to other medical problems, in older people, signs of hypothyroidism can be even more confusing. In people over 60, any of the following health issues–alone or in combination–could be the result of hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone levels:
- Unexplained high cholesterol–In older adults, high cholesterol is occasionally the only sign of an under-active thyroid. Even if this is the only symptom, a high cholesterol level warrants a thyroid evaluation.
- Heart failure–Some of the effects of low thyroid hormone levels– including reduced blood volume, weaker heartbeat, and/or a slower heart rate– may contribute to heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn’t pump blood effectively to the muscles and organs of the body. Symptoms of heart failure can include breathlessness, swelling in the ankles, weakness, and fatigue.
- Changes in bowel movements–Hypothyroidism can cause constipation because of decreased movement of stool through the bowels. Less often, an older person will have frequent bouts of diarrhea, which is more often a symptom of an overactive thyroid. Persistent or severe diarrhea in an older person merits a call to the doctor and a thyroid blood panel.
- Joint or muscle pain–Vague joint pain is a classic symptom of hypothyroidism. In fact, it sometimes is the only symptom of hypothyroidism in older patients, although many experience generalized muscle aches, particularly in large muscle groups.
- Mental health concerns–In people of all age groups, depression is a common clue of an underactive thyroid. The difference is that in older people, it is sometimes the only symptom. Older people may also develop other psychiatric symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations.
- Dementia–Extensive memory loss– often, but not always, accompanied by depression or some kind of psychosis–can also occur as the singular symptom of an under-active thyroid. If you or a loved one is being evaluated for dementia, be sure that thyroid tests are performed.
- Problems with balance–Abnormalities in the cerebellum (the lobe at the back of the brain) that occur with an under-active thyroid can lead to gait disorders in older people.