A month when many people prioritize health and wellness, January is a fitting time to dedicate increased awareness to an often overlooked but hugely impactful influence on our health: the thyroid gland. The American Thyroid Association (ATA) has designated January as Thyroid Awareness Month. Throughout January, the ATA promotes outreach, education, and fundraising efforts to support the prevention, treatment, and cure of thyroid diseases and thyroid cancer.
The thyroid is a small gland located in the lower front of your neck. Its purpose is to produce thyroid hormones, which are carried to every tissue in the body and help to ensure your organs develop and function as they should.
Although the thyroid gland is responsible for a number of bodily processes that have a significant impact on our overall health and wellbeing—including digestion and metabolism, body temperature regulation, cardiovascular function, cognitive function, sleep patterns, and more—most people don’t give it a second thought unless something goes wrong.
Thyroid disease can affect people of all ages, but like many conditions, the incidence of thyroid problems increases with age. Approximately 20% of women over the age of 60 experience some form of thyroid disease.
The most well-known form of thyroid disease is hyperthyroidism, the overproduction of thyroid hormones, but thyroid dysfunction can also take the form of autoimmune diseases, thyroid enlargement (goiter), and thyroid cancer. Left untreated, thyroid disease can have many long-term effects. Of particular relevance to seniors, hyperthyroidism is a risk factor for high cholesterol and heart disease, and can cause osteoporosis.
There is also a strong link between thyroid dysfunction and mental illness. Thyroid problems are often misdiagnosed as mental health disorders, due to the fact that they can produce many psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, sleeping difficulties. Other cognitive symptoms associated with thyroid issues include short-term memory loss, concentration difficulties, and lack of mental alertness, which in the senior population are often confused with the early symptoms of dementia.
Because many symptoms of thyroid disease mimic the symptoms of aging (such as fatigue, aches and pains, high cholesterol, and hair loss), thyroid disease is much more likely to remain undiagnosed in the senior population than among middle-aged adults. Older adults are also more likely to display subtler symptoms, or no symptoms at all. That makes it all the more important to spread awareness about thyroid diseases and educate seniors about how to recognize the signs.
Symptoms of thyroid disease include:
– Racing heartbeat
– Aches and pains
– Unexplained weight changes
– Increased appetite
– Nerves and anxiety
– High cholesterol levels
– Changes in bowel patterns
– Problems sleeping
– Feeling too hot or too cold
– Swelling in the neck
– Hair loss
– Dry skin and brittle nails
– Numbness or tingling in the hands
– Muscle weakness
– Vision problems
If you’ve noticed changes in any of the above symptoms and are concerned you might have a thyroid issue, make an appointment with your doctor. Thyroid Awareness Month is the perfect time to talk to your doctor about thyroid health.