Understanding Thyroid Disease In The Older Population 

The thyroid gland is one of the more interesting glands in the body. Interesting meaning that not everyone knows where it is or what its purpose is, but they are more likely to notice when the thyroid isn’t working like it’s supposed to.

In some cases, even medical providers may initially miss problems in overall thyroid function since many of the symptoms when things stop working right may initially appear like problems with other organs or other unrelated symptoms.

For instance, chest pains, difficulty breathing, emotional highs and lows, muscle tremors, coughing, and even itchy skin can have their origins due to too much or too little production of thyroid hormones. The same is true with fatigue, which is a common symptom for all sorts of health conditions and something that’s difficult to pinpoint in the circumstances where thyroid problems may be the root.  

The American Thyroid Association said both hyperthyroidism (excessive production of this hormone) or hypothyroidism (not enough production of this hormone) can cause problems throughout the body, including weight loss, bowel diseases, and more.

Thyroid problems can occur at any age but are more common in ages 60 and up. According to Harvard Medical School, it is especially difficult to recognize hyperthyroidism, but there are certain signs that can indicate someone is experiencing the opposite, which is hypothyroidism.

These can include changes in cholesterol levels; changes in performance of the heart, including feeling tired more often or running out of air sooner; changes in bowel movements; general pain in muscles or joints; and mental health problems, which could range from psychosis to hallucinations.

Seniors with a malfunctioning thyroid also may experience cognitive decline, a condition which may mirror other mental health conditions such as basic dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Someone who is already dealing with Alzheimer’s disease may not even consider that the thyroid may be aggravating existing problems.

The actual thyroid is small, butterfly-shaped, and located in the neck, but controls so many of the body’s processes and systems, including calorie burn, heart rate, and sensitivity to heat and cold.

It is estimated that about 20 million Americans have some type of thyroid condition but 60 percent of them are unaware of this. More than 44,000 cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed in 2022.

Getting help

The best starting point when dealing with possible hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, or other problems related to the thyroid that you or a loved one are experiencing is to discuss what’s happening with a health care provider.

He or she will likely want to order a thyroid screening, which is a blood test that looks for specific hormones in certain amounts.

This will give the provider guidance that hormone levels aren’t where they’re supposed to be and what range they are in.

Once the thyroid has been identified as the culprit, the provider or a specialist may begin the process of trying to figure out different options to improve.

This can include everything from a referral to a provider who has more experience and training with the thyroid gland, such as a surgeon or oncologist.

One option is to remove some or all of the gland, especially in situations where it might have deteriorated due to cancer or physical trauma or nodes may have developed. In these cases where surgery is required, some of its core functions can be duplicated by certain medications.

The person who is required to begin this new prescription regimen will be given a basic schedule of when to take medication throughout the day. They also might be warned about what to watch out for.

Or, medication can also be recommended instead of surgery, since certain medications may be able to help regulate the gland and bring hormone levels into normal ranges again, provided they’re taken regularly. A certain diet high in minerals also might be recommended.

Seniors who are formally diagnosed with thyroid health conditions may benefit from a friend, family member, or caregiver reminding them when to take their medication throughout the day. Regular intake is essential especially when trying to duplicate the processes of the gland all day long.

Any prescription to replace or supplement thyroid function is likely to be prescribed for the rest of someone’s life.

Learn more

To increase awareness of the thyroid and general care concerns, various thyroid organizations have declared January to be Thyroid Awareness Month.

This international initiative encourages people to learn about the gland and its function as well as where to go to get assistance, or at least more answers. It also encourages support of thyroid-related organizations such as the American Thyroid Association.

People who want to do their part can use the month as a reminder to schedule a regular visit to their provider to discuss their thyroid. Anyone can have these conversations, but those with higher risk factors such as past thyroid conditions, a family history of them, or women, should make it a point to have regular check-ups. (Men and women can have thyroid problems but women are more likely to experience them.)

Scroll to Top
Skip to content