Thyroid Awareness Month
January is “Thyroid Awareness Month”. In this article, we discuss the function of the thyroid gland and the various thyroid health concerns that can arise, especially for seniors. (Note: “Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month”, which has a focus specifically on one thyroid disorder, thyroid cancer, occurs in September.)
Diagnosing thyroid disease in seniors can be difficult because some of the symptoms are also associated with aging or other medical conditions. It might be natural to assume that memory issues, constipation or weight gain are part of the aging process. However, these can also be signs 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.
The Thyroid Gland
The thyroid gland is a small organ, which is shaped almost like a butterfly and produces important hormones. The gland is just 2 inches in size and is situated below your Adam’s apple and a little above your collarbones. It is responsible for running and maintaining a number of critical processes for a healthy body.
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.
Thyroid Awareness Month
January has been dedicated as Thyroid Awareness Month to help draw attention to this serious disease. 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.
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
If you think you might be one of the 15 million Americans that have an undiagnosed thyroid condition, you might want to check your neck for lumps, which could be an indication of a thyroid condition.
To perform a self-check:
Hold a hand mirror towards your neck just above your 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.
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.
Causes 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.
Types of Thyroid Diseases
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces excessive amounts of hormones.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include increased anxiety or nervousness and emotional instability. You may experience unusual weight loss, a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and diarrhea or irregular menstrual cycles if you’re still menstruating.
Depending upon your situation, your doctor may prescribe treatments using anti-thyroid medications, surgery or radioactive iodine therapy.
Hypothyroidism results when the thyroid does not produce enough hormones.
Most of the symptoms resulting from hypothyroidism are the opposite of hyperthyroidism. People with hypo thyroid disease may experience depression, body hair loss, changes in the voice, constipation and muscle aches. They may also notice a slower heart rate, irregular menstrual cycles and weight gain.
Hypo conditions are normally treated using a synthetic thyroid hormone called levothyroxine, which comes in a pill form and is swallowed.
Thyroid cancer is one of the rarer forms of cancer in the US. In an average year, as many as 45,000 people may be diagnosed with this type of cancer, but most cases are easily treated or cured by surgery.
The Emotional Impact Of Thyroid Cancer
Although it is true that thyroid cancer is often able to be successfully treated with surgery (typically thyroidectomy), thyroid cancer survivors often report that they resent it when others may make light of the post-surgical issues faced by survivors, including lifelong dependency upon medication and recurring medical exams and ultrasound imaging to check for recurrence.
Many survivors also report experiencing lingering anxiety and stress from their awareness that although rare, recurrence is possible for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, many survivors also face long-term problems with muscle cramps related to damage that can occur to their parathyroid glands during thyroidectomies.
Caregivers Can Help Seniors with Thyroid Disease
Caregivers should carefully monitor and discuss thyroid symptoms and aging complaints with seniors or elderly people in their charge. Professional caregivers provided by in-home care companies are usually trained about the need to take care these concerns. If your senior loved one lives in an assisted living facility, the caregivers in that facility need to be trained on the importance of these matters.
- 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.
- Dispense medications at least a half hour before breakfast.
- Patients are advised to take medications several hours before consuming foods containing iron, calcium or soy, which may interfere with absorption.
- Caregivers should verify the prescription for levothyroxine is correct and no substitutions have been made by insurance companies.
Thyroid prescriptions can usually get symptoms under control. However, it’s important that family members and caregivers keep abreast of new symptoms that may warrant a trip to the doctor.