January is National Thyroid Awareness Month
The first month of the new year is when most people reassess their health. Since January is also Thyroid Awareness Month, now is the time to learn about this often overlooked (but no less crucial) gland.
Throughout the month, the American Thyroid Association (ATA) hosts programs and events aimed at outreach, education, and fundraising to continue the prevention, treatment, and cure of thyroid diseases and cancer.
What Is The Thyroid?
Many people do not realize the vital role that this small, butterfly-shaped gland plays in the body’s overall health.
The thyroid is a major part of the endocrine system, which uses hormones to regulate body growth, sexual development, metabolism, and more.
Situated on the lower front part of the neck, the thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones, which are critical for normal organ development and processes. Every tissue in the body uses thyroid hormones to maintain its health and functionality.
The other aspect of the endocrine system is the pituitary gland, which tells the thyroid to produce hormones. When a problem between thyroid and pituitary glands arises, it can be detrimental for the rest of the body.
Many don’t realize the thyroid’s significance or think about how many processes it helps maintain. Here are some of the chief functions it affects:
- Digestion and metabolism
- Body temperature regulation
- Cardiovascular and cognitive functions
As it is, those dealing with problems with these processes may not realize it is due to thyroid issues.
Thyroid disfunction has many forms, and the long-term effects of untreated thyroid disease can be devastating.
Hyperthyroidism is the most common type of thyroid disease and is more common in adults under 50. This condition causes the gland to produce an excessive amount of hormones and negatively impact the body.
For seniors, hyperthyroidism is a risk factor for high cholesterol, heart disease, and can lead to osteoporosis.
Hypothyroidism, on the other hand, generally appears in those 60 and older. This form is difficult to detect as it has broad, generic symptoms, particularly in seniors.
Hypothyroidism is characterized by fatigue, cold sensitivity, weight gain, dry skin, joint pain, and muscle stiffness, constipation, and depression.
These non-specific signs often are the reason why this form of thyroid dysfunction is underdiagnosed.
One of the most common causes of hypothyroidism in Americans is chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s Disease.
This disease occurs when the immune system attacks and gradually destroys the thyroid gland until it no longer produces hormones.
Like the majority of thyroid diseases, symptoms often are undetectable or appear as other health issues.
About 14 million Americans are affected by this condition, and it can develop at any age. Middle-aged women are most at-risk for Hashimoto’s Disease.
But a dysfunctional thyroid doesn’t always manifest as an easily discernable health problem. It can also appear as another condition, such as an autoimmune disease, goiter (enlargement of the thyroid), or cancer.
Thyroid Disease and Mental Illness
Researchers have established a strong correlation between thyroid problems and mental health. An irregular thyroid gland not only produces physical problems but psychological ones as well.
For example, anxiety, depression, mood swings, and issues with sleeping can all be because of a dysfunctional thyroid. Consequently, these symptoms are frequently misdiagnosed as a mental health disorder.
In addition, poor thyroid health can cause short-term memory loss, difficulties concentrating and reduced mental clarity. For older adults, these signs could be mistaken for early dementia.
Symptoms of Thyroid Disease
Since older adults are more at risk for developing some form of thyroid disease, it’s important to learn the signs before it’s too late.
It’s possible to miss symptoms of this condition in seniors because they may experience more indirect signs or none at all. Or, a dysfunctional thyroid may be misinterpreted as symptoms of aging (e.g., fatigue, body aches, high cholesterol, hair loss).
As a result, seniors are less likely to receive a proper diagnosis and get the necessary treatment. That is why spreading awareness and teaching adults of any age about thyroid health is necessary.
Here are the key symptoms of thyroid disease:
- Fast heartbeat
- Body aches
- Unexplained changes in weight
- Increased appetite
- Anxiety and nervousness
- High cholesterol
- Irregular bowel patterns
- Sleep issues
- Reduced body temperature regulation, e.g., feeling too hot or too cold
- Swelling in the neck
- Hair loss
- Dry skin and brittle nails
- Hands feel numb or tingly
- Muscle weakness
- Problems with vision
If you or a loved one think that you are experiencing these problems, Thyroid Awareness month is a great time to discuss it with your doctor.
As a whole, thyroid diseases are more common than heart disease and diabetes. About 30 million Americans have a type of thyroid disease, and more half remain undiagnosed.
Although it can occur in anyone, the likelihood of developing this condition increases with age.
Women are also more susceptible to experiencing thyroid issues. An estimated 20% of women 60 and older develop a form of thyroid disease, and women between 25 and 60 are three times more likely than men to develop thyroid cancer.
By 2020, the number of female thyroid cancer cases will reach 70,000–double what it was in 2014.
The most significant risk factor is a family history of thyroid problems.
Testing and Treatment
There are ways to test yourself at home. However, regular check-ups with your doctor are essential for monitoring your thyroid gland.
Proper testing for thyroid disease is performed by measuring the body’s thyroid hormone levels with a blood test.
But if you are waiting for your next appointment, here is how you can test your thyroid at home.
Hold a hand mirror in front of your neck, right above your collarbones. Pay attention to the area below your Adam’s apple.
- Lean your head back and take a sip of water.
- Swallow the water, and keep an eye on your neck for signs of swelling.
- Repeat several times to ensure you don’t see apparent indications of bulging.
- If you notice any abnormalities, call your doctor.
Remember, this self-test is not a diagnosis, and you should always follow up on any concerns with your physician.
Additionally, the ATA offers a free brochure on the essentials of thyroid testing as well as information about this gland.
Fortunately, hyper- and hypothyroidism are both treatable conditions, usually with medicine or other strategies.
But to effectively manage symptoms, family members and caregivers must be aware of new signs and be ready to share new developments with the doctor.
Medications must be taken daily at the same time and should be taken half an hour before breakfast.
Some foods such as soy, calcium, and iron may decrease the medicine’s absorption, so patients must wait several hours to eat these types of foods after taking their medication.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. This Thyroid Awareness Month, find out more about how you can be more proactive about your health.
If you or a loved one are affected by a dysfunctional thyroid, it can be challenging to stay on top of routine tasks and self-care.
A qualified caregiver can help with everyday care, assist with medications for thyroid treatment, and assist with transportation to appointments.
For more information and resources about senior health and safety, visit the Blog.
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