Judson Haims: Thyroid hormone changes often overlooked in medical evaluations of elderly

Aging is a normal process the body goes through, but not all of the symptoms that are frequently attributed to the normal aging process should be directly connected to aging — some may be associated with other illnesses such as hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.

Symptoms like fatigue, depression, forgetfulness and sleeplessness can often be easily attributed to “just getting old,” yet, as is the case with many other illnesses, these symptoms may indicate another problem area that should be medically evaluated.

Thyroid hormones affect every cell and all the organs of the body. Too much thyroid hormone speeds up things and too little thyroid hormone slows down things. Genetics, an autoimmune attack, pregnancy, stress, nutritional deficiencies and environmental toxins can all play a part in wreaking havoc on your thyroid. These hormones:

• Control the rate at which your body burns calories

• Affect the rate of your heartbeat

• Can raise or lower your body temperature

• Change how fast food moves through your digestive tract

• Affect muscle strength

• Control how quickly your body replaces dying cells

Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of the hormone, thyroxine. Hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.

When the thyroid gland is overactive (hyperthyroidism) the body’s metabolic processes becomes accelerated often causing people to experience nervousness, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, hand tremor, excessive sweating, sudden weight loss and sleep problems.

Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are often overlooked in medical evaluations of the elderly. However, due to the high incidents and prevalence of these diseases in our elderly, it is wise to carefully review with your medical provider(s) the possibility of such illness being the cause of the above mentioned symptoms.

According to Dr. Ruchi Mather with the Division of Endocrinology, thyroid disease increases with age (especially in woman over the age of 65); “approximately 15% of all patients diagnosed with hyperthyroidism are over the age 60.” Even though this disease does affect those at younger ages (30-40), it is much more difficult to diagnose as we age.

Knowledge is the key. Tests, such as T4 and T3U (or T3 Uptake), can be performed to help evaluate the presence of either hyper or hypothyroidism. Replacement hormone therapy (L-T4) is effective in hypothyroidism, whereas in hyperthyroidism (the over production of thyroid hormone) an antithyroid medication is often prescribed to reduce production of the thyroid hormone with sedatives and beta blockers utilized to treat the associated rapid heart rate and nervousness.

The issue of concern here is that often seniors are never diagnosed properly as having hyper or hypothyroidism but rather are told their symptoms are typical of anyone in their stage of the aging process.

As we age, our medical needs will increase. Understanding what is changing with our bodies and how we can adjust to changes becomes ever more important. Ask questions of your doctor. Being proactive in your health and understanding your body does not mean you are second guessing anyone. You are your best advocate.

Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Aspen, Basal, and Carbondale. He is an advocate for our elderly and is available to answer questions. His contact information is or 970-328-5526.