Left Untreated, Low Thyroid Can Be Life-Threatening


Many seniors attribute symptoms such as fatigue, forgetfulness, weight gain and moving more slowly to normal aging.

But these health problems can point to a much bigger, often overlooked problem--hypothyroidism, which means the body is not making enough thyroid hormone. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland in the neck, just above the collarbone. It makes hormones that regulate metabolism and tells other body parts and organs what to do.

If not treated, long-term uncontrolled hypothyroidism can cause:

  • Heart problems. Hypothyroidism raises cholesterol levels and can lead to heart attack or stroke.
  • Peripheral neuropathy. This condition can damage nerves that run from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body, such as arms and legs, causing pain, numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness.
  • Myxedema. Symptoms of this rare, life-threatening condition include intense cold intolerance and drowsiness followed by profound lethargy, unconsciousness and myxedema coma. Myxedema requires emergency medical treatment.
  • Mental health issues. Depression may occur early in hypothyroidism and may become more severe over time. Hypothyroidism can also cause slowed mental functioning.

John E. Morley, M.D, a geriatric doctor and endocrinologist and director of the Geriatric Medicine Division at Saint Louis University School of Medicine told AgingCare.com that low thyroid can be quickly diagnosed and easily treated.

A simple blood test detects thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels, Dr. Morley says. If hypothyroidism is found, a hormone replacement pill, called L-Thyroxine, is prescribed. "Most people start to feel better within a week or two," Dr. Morley says. Although symptoms eventually will go away, the pills must be taken for life.

About 15% of all patients diagnosed with hypothyroidism are over age 60, according to the American Association of Endocrinologists.

Following the doctor's orders is key when it comes to treating low thyroid. "More isn't better," Dr. Morley explains. "Elderly people typically require less of the hormone treatment. Some people think, ‘if a little is good for me, more is better.' However, over-treating can lead to bone loss and osteoporosis."

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