The thyroid, a small, butterfly-shaped gland in our throats, can wreak havoc on just about anyone. For older adults, thyroid problems are especially common, and they often complicate heart disease, accelerate osteoporosis, and cause a storm of other health issues. The way in which the thyroid gland interacts with the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus to produce, regulate, and circulate various hormones throughout the body is reminiscent of the complex communication between the telephone switchboards, operators, and callers in the 1950’s. I won’t even begin to explain the entanglements of these three because you will likely become just as confused as I did. What is more important to note is the fact that thyroid disease is not easy to detect in older adults – and that leaving it untreated can lead to severe health concerns.
Also known as an overactive thyroid, hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone called thyroxine. Sudden weight loss, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and nervousness are typical symptoms. In older adults, the abnormal heart rhythms caused by hyperthyroidism can also complicate existing heart conditions. Tachycardia, in which the heart beat is very rapid (above 100 beats per minute), can be caused by hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism causes the heart to work too hard, placing older adults at a greater risk for heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
In some cases, an overactive thyroid can lead to what is known as a thyroid storm. A bit less common, the thyroid storm is nevertheless a very serious condition in which blood pressure rises to severe highs and the heart beats extremely fast. Sufferers of a thryroid storm may also experience shortness of breath, high fever, chest pain, confusion, nervousness, and mood swings. This condition can also lead to coma, stroke, or heart attack; therefore, a thyroid storm should be treated as a medical emergency.
While less discussed, the other major complication of too much thyroid hormone is the accelerated breakdown of bone – which can lead to osteoporosis. Bone naturally weakens as we age, but the risks of developing osteoporosis are even higher with an overactive thyroid gland. This risk is especially high among post-menopausal women, as this population is lacking in estrogen (which protects bones).
The opposite of Hyperthyroidism is Hypothyroidism. Also known as an underactive thyroid, this is a condition in which the thyroid gland fails to produce adequate amounts of particular hormones needed in the body. This shortage upsets the balance of chemical reactions in the body and causes fatigue, muscle aches, brittle fingernails and hair, and an increased sensitivity to cold. If left untreated, it can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility, and heart disease. Women over the age of 50 have the highest risk of hypothyroidism.
Because it causes an increase in the amount of cholesterol produced in the liver, an underactive thyroid can lead to elevated overall cholesterol levels. It also increases the amount of cholesterol absorbed into the bloodstream, which makes it harder for the liver to eliminate. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is also common in those with hypothyroidism. For those with a combination of high cholesterol and high blood pressure, the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke is multiplied.
Long term untreated hypothyroidism can lead to a life-threatening condition called myxedema coma. Triggered by factors such as an infection, severe stress, cold temperatures, stroke, trauma, heart failure, or specific drugs, a myxedema coma can quickly lead to death for those with existing heart problems.
Regardless of what symptoms you notice or don’t notice, hypo or hyperthyroidism can make pre-existing heart disease worse and put older adults more at risk for other heart problems and health issues. Talk to your doctor about symptoms and tests to diagnose thyroid disease so you can prevent a storm from brewin’ within your body.
Research & Community Education