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Posted: June 10, 2011

Keeping Seniors Healthy

Thyroid: Small, Complex Gland Vital to Staying Alive

Q. As an authentic geezer, I’ve had so many medical tests that I think I’ve seen more acronyms than were around during the New Deal. Recently, a friend of mine suggested that I get a TSH test for my thyroid. What, in the name of FDR, is a TSH test?

A. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the middle of the lower neck. It produces hormones that control metabolism, which are the chemical processes cells in the body perform to keep us alive.

It should come as no surprise that the thyroid gland often peters out as we get older. The thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test checks to see if your thyroid is producing the right amount of hormone for your system. If the gland is making too much hormone, you get hyperthyroidism; if it makes too little, you get hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism is very common in people over 60 years of age; the incidence of it steadily increases with age. About 25% of people in nursing homes may have undiagnosed hypothyroidism because the symptoms of this condition can be misinterpreted as signs of aging.

The Thyroid Foundation of America recommends that people over 50 years old get a TSH test at least once every five years, and more often if there are symptoms. When thyroid disease is caught early, treatment can control the disorder even before the onset of symptoms

The symptoms of hypothyroidism include: fatigue, intolerance to cold, constipation, forgetfulness, muscle cramps, hair loss, depression, weight gain, dry skin, hoarseness and mood swings.

The symptoms of hyperthyroidism include: weight loss (not always in seniors), heat intolerance, hyperactivity, muscle weakness, palpitations, tremors, nervousness, irritability, insomnia, enlarged thyroid gland, frequent bowel movements, vision problems or eye irritation.

About 27 million Americans of all ages have overactive or underactive thyroid glands but more than half the conditions are undiagnosed. More than 80% of people with thyroid disease are women.

Thyroid diseases are life-long, but treatable conditions. However, if untreated, thyroid disease can cause elevated cholesterol levels and subsequent heart disease, infertility, muscle weakness, osteoporosis and, in extreme cases, coma or death.

Treatment to balance your hormone levels is simple and not very expensive.

Hypothyroidism is treated with a drug called levothyroxine. This is a synthetic hormone tablet that replaces missing thyroid hormone in the body. With careful monitoring, your doctor will adjust your dosage accordingly, and you’ll soon be able to return to your normal lifestyle.

Hyperthyroidism, generally more difficult to treat, requires the normalization of thyroid hormone production. Treatment could involve drug therapy to block hormone production, radioactive iodine treatment that disables the thyroid, or even thyroid surgery.

The most popular treatment for hyperthyroidism is radioactive iodine. This therapy often causes hypothyroidism, requiring levothyroxine to bring the system back to normal.


Fred Cicetti is a freelance writer who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey. He has written two published novels: Saltwater Taffy, and Local Angles. You can send your health-related questions to Fred at fred@healthygeezer.com.

© 2011 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.
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