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Nurturing Thyroid Health: Knowledge, Detection, and Wellness

Mature blond female patient having checkup of her thyroid glands by African American male endocrinologist in medical office

When I underwent thyroid surgery removal due to suspected cancer, it was overwhelming. The positive outcome was that the thyroid nodules were not cancer, despite my worst fear. I can attest that, if properly treated, it is possible to live a normal, healthy life with proper treatment and medication.

What is a thyroid and where is it located? Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck. It is responsible for producing two main hormones—thyroxine (T-4) and triiodothyronine (T-3)—that are essential to our body’s health and wellness. Our cells, tissues, and organs, like the heart, brain, liver, and kidneys, depend on our thyroid glands to support the rate our body uses fats and carbohydrates, to help control our body temperature, to balance our heart rate, and to help control how much protein our bodies make.

When the thyroid does not work well, either making too much or too little thyroid hormone, that is when problems occur.

Hypothyroidism—not enough thyroid

Hypothyroidism happens when the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough of the hormones. It is also known as underactive thyroid.

A person might not experience any specific symptoms initially; however, as metabolism slows down from not having enough of the hormones, things like muscle weakness, changes in gait, sensitivity to cold, constipation, weight gain, changes in thinking, memory problems, slowed heart rate, and dry skin may occur. Among older people, Hypothyroidism is often due to Hashimoto’s Disease (autoimmune thyroiditis).

Treatment: In most cases, a medication is prescribed to replace the hormone that the body is no longer making. This is a manageable disease, as long as the medication is taken as directed. One medication (levothyroxine) is taken by mouth. Taking the medication regularly, as prescribed, and scheduling follow-up appointments with a health care provider can ensure hormone levels are normal and monitored.

Hyperthyroidism—too much thyroid

Hyperthyroidism happens when the thyroid gland makes too much of the hormone. This causes the body to have a faster metabolism, and symptoms can include hand tremors, rapid or irregular heartbeat, weakness, skin changes, increased sensitivity to heat, an enlarged thyroid gland that appears as a swelling in the base of the neck, feeling tired, difficulty sleeping, thinning skin, and weight loss. A person might also experience thyroid eye disease, and what is noticed is that the eyes appear to be bulging. Increased light sensitivity, double vision, reddened eyes, and/or pain and pressure in the eyes can also be noted.

The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave’s disease, which is an autoimmune disorder. This causes the thyroid to make too much hormone.

Another cause is overactive thyroid nodules, or lumps in the thyroid, and this commonly occurs in older adults, with 90 percent of women aged 70 years and older and 60 percent of men over age 80 having thyroid nodules. Though the lumps are usually noncancerous, only your health care provider can confirm this by running tests.

Treatment: A health care provider may prescribe anti-thyroid medicines and radioiodine to slow the quantity of hormones the thyroid gland makes. Sometimes, surgery is required to remove all or part of the thyroid gland. Regular follow-up with a health care provider is important to monitor the condition.

Anytime an older person has confusion, falls, unstable gait, unexplained weakness, weight changes, or unexpected behavioral change, the thyroid function should be checked.

I know from personal experience that a thyroid disorder is treatable. If you have any concerns, please talk with your health care provider at your earliest opportunity to set your mind at ease.

Mary Pat O'LearyContributor Mary Pat O’Leary RN, BSN, is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle & King County.