Thyroid & Aging - Helping to Keep the Golden Years Golden

Medical Author: Ruchi Mathur, M.D.
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

It is an often a sad but true fact that as we age, the golden years are not quite as golden as we dreamed. Symptoms such as fatigue, depression, forgetfulness, and sleeplessness can make attempts at enjoying retirement difficult. Many seniors attribute these symptoms to the process of aging and simply choose to live with these complaints quietly, assuming its "par for the course." Others see their doctors for these complaints, who may also attribute these symptoms to aging, or worse, diagnose the patient with clinical depression or dementia.

What we all need to understand is that aging, in the absence of disease, should not automatically be associated with symptoms such as fatigue, forgetfulness, and sleeplessness. There should be some medical evaluation before an elderly patient is simply labeled as depressed or demented, or a chronic complainer.

The incidence of thyroid disease increases with age. An estimated 20% of women over the age of 60 have some form of thyroid disease. The symptoms of thyroid disease vary according to whether too much hormone is being produced (hyperthyroid) or too little (hypothyroid). Hypothyroidism is much more common in the elderly population, and symptoms may be non-specific such as those mentioned above.

Below are some interesting points about thyroid disease and aging as compiled by the American Association of Endocrinologists:

  • 1 out of every 5 women over the age of 65 has an higher than normal level of TSH (indicating hypothyroidism)


  • Approximately 25% of the elderly population suffer from some form of mental illness. A significant number of these cases may be related to thyroid disease.


  • Approximately 15% of all patients diagnosed with hyperthyroidism are over the age of 60.


  • Because of many factors, thyroid disease in those over 65 years old is much more likely to remain undiagnosed as compared with thyroid disease in 30 to 40 year olds.

There are two more points of importance regarding elderly patients and thyroid disease. First, hypothyroidism is a risk factor for high cholesterol and heart disease. Because many elderly people remain undiagnosed for years, it is important to check cholesterol levels in all elderly patients who are diagnosed with hypothyroidism. The opposite is also true. Elderly patients with persistently increased cholesterol levels should have a thyroid evaluation to make certain that thyroid disease is not contributing to the high cholesterol levels. Second, hyperthyroidism is a cause for osteoporosis, a common cause of weak bones in the elderly.

What can you do to make certain you thyroid level is OK? It's simple. If you are suspicious that you may have thyroid disease, or you have symptoms such as those above that have gone unexplained, ask your physician for a thyroid evaluation. This involves examining the thyroid gland in the neck and a simple blood test to evaluate TSH levels and T4 and T3 levels. Thyroid disease is usually easy to diagnose and treat. Identifying thyroid disease and treating it appropriately can help you enjoy those golden years after all.


Last Editorial Review: 4/16/2008