January is “Thyroid Awareness Month,” which calls attention to the various health problems connected to the thyroid. Most of us have heard about thyroid glands, but we may not realize the importance of the gland or that we may have symptoms of this disease. Therefore, this month is dedicated to talking about thyroid disease – the conditions and symptoms, importance of diagnosis and treatment, as well as the many issues thyroid issues face day-to-day. In addition, health experts hope that publicizing information about thyroid diseases will educate people and encourage them to visit their physician for a simple blood test to determine if they need treatment.
Diagnosing thyroid disease in seniors can be difficult because some of the symptoms are also associated with aging or other medical conditions — however, these can also be signs of thyroid disease, as well.
In our blog, Unicity Eldercare will discuss the importance of “Thyroid Awareness Month” — as well as the function of the thyroid gland and the various thyroid health concerns that can arise, especially for seniors adults.
What Is The Thyroid?
The thyroid is a gland in the neck in charge of your metabolism and creating new proteins. The gland is part of the endocrine system, which directly affects almost every single organ. It is responsible for regulating skin integrity, menstrual cycles, calcium levels, and the nervous system, heart and cholesterol levels. In addition, it controls brain development, your body temperature, respiration, metabolism and fat production. Thyroid problems begin to occur when the thyroid gland produces too much hormone or not enough.
There are several illnesses and diseases related to the thyroid, including hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, and goiter, and thyroid cancer.
The thyroid may be only a small gland in your lower neck area, but it has a huge impact on your health. This butterfly-shaped gland makes thyroid hormones that help your body use energy and stay warm, according to the American Thyroid Association. Thyroid hormones also keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working properly.
Types Of Thyroid Disease
Today, some 30 million Americans are affected by thyroid disease. If you think you or a loved one may have a thyroid condition, you should learn about diagnosis, symptoms and treatments.
Hyperthyroidism is where your thyroid works more actively than it should. Hyperthyroidism is most common in patients under age 50, and is marked by an enlarged thyroid gland, plus insomnia, a rapid heart rate, anxiety, weight loss, increased appetite, excessive perspiration, and diarrhea. However, the senior hypothyroidism patient may only have one or two of these symptoms, which can delay or prevent accurate diagnosis.
Although hyperthyroidism is associated with more energy, the body breaks down after a while, leading the person to feel more tired.
Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Increased sweating
- Oversensitivity to heat
- Increased appetite
- Weight loss
- Dry, thin skin
- Hair loss
- Dry or gritty eyes/double vision
Hypothyroidism means that your thyroid is working slower than it should. Hypothyroidism is most common is patients over 60, and the incidence of this disease increases with age. Symptoms in the older patient are often unspecific; and since older adults can also suffer memory impairment, weight loss, loss of appetite, it’s easy to see why hypothyroidism is so under-diagnosed.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Sensitivity to cold/heat
- Weight gain and inability to lose weight
- Slow movements, speech and thoughts
- Itchy and/or sore scalp
- Muscle aches, pains and weakness
- Poor appetite
- Dry and tight feeling skin
- Brittle hair and nails
- Numbness in limbs
There are many possible causes of hypothyroidism, including an autoimmune disease, certain medicines, or even surgical removal of a part of the thyroid gland.
Hashimoto’s disease is also known as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis. It’s the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States, affecting about 14 million Americans. It can occur at any age, though it’s most common in middle-aged women. The disease occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and slowly destroys the thyroid gland and its ability to produce hormones.
Some people with mild cases of Hashimoto’s disease may have no obvious symptoms. The disease can remain stable for years, and symptoms are often subtle, which means they also mimic symptoms of many other conditions.
- mild weight gain
- dry skin
- dry, thinning hair
- pale, puffy face
- heavy and irregular menstruation
- intolerance to cold
- enlarged thyroid, or goiter
Thyroid Disease Diagnosis
If you think you or your loved one may have an undiagnosed thyroid condition, you can start by doing a self-check of your (or your loved one’s) neck for lumps, which could be an indication of a thyroid condition.
How To Perform A Self-Check:
Hold a hand mirror towards your neck, above the collarbones where you can see the area below your Adam’s apple.
- Tilt the head back, and take a sip of water.
- Swallow the water, and watch your neck for signs of bulging.
- Repeat the steps a few times to make sure you don’t see obvious signs of bulging.
- If you discover a bulge, nodule or an enlarged gland, contact your physician.
The only way to know for sure if you have thyroid disease of any type is to have a blood test that measures your thyroid hormone levels. To confirm whether there is a thyroid concern, your physician may perform a thyroid-stimulating hormone test. This blood test measures whether the gland is working properly. It is highly recommended to get tested if you are a senior over 60, have family members diagnosed with the disease or believe you have symptoms.
Diagnosing thyroid disease in seniors can be difficult because some of the symptoms are also associated with aging or other medical conditions. It is natural to assume symptoms such as memory issues, constipation or weight gain are part of the aging process. However, these can also be signs of thyroid disease.
Causes & Treatment Of Thyroid Diseases
There are several causes, but some common causes can be attributed to autoimmune disease, certain types of medications, thyroid surgery or radiation therapy. Anyone can develop thyroid problems, but women who are 60 years of age or older seem to be more susceptible.
Hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication, iodine, or hormones, and the other conditions can be addressed with therapy or surgery. Both hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be treated with medicine or other approaches, which can greatly improve quality of life.
Luckily, thyroid prescriptions can usually get symptoms under control. However, it’s important that family members and caregivers of senior loved ones keep abreast of new symptoms that may occur, because medications often times need to be changed, or dosages increased or decreased.
Helping Seniors With Thyroid Disease
Caregivers and loved ones should know the signs and symptoms of thyroid disease, as it is more common than diabetes or heart disease and often under-diagnosed in seniors.
Caregivers should carefully monitor and discuss thyroid symptoms and aging complaints with seniors or elderly people in their charge. Professional caregivers are usually trained about the need to take care these concerns. If you’re responsible for a senior that is taking thyroid medication, you need to see that the medication is taken the same exact time every day.
Other sources for the caregiver of a senior loved one with Thyroid Disease can be found here:
Unicity Eldercare: We’re Here To Help
If the senior loved one if your life has a change of condition — including the symptoms listed above — it is advisable to seek medical evaluation to determine whether a thyroid issue may be causing the challenges.
If your loved one has already been diagnosed with thyroid disease and you need assistance in navigating their home care, you may seek help from Unicity’s qualified home care professionals to help ease the burden.