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Is It An Underactive Thyroid?

When your thyroid hormone level gets too low, nearly every system in your body is affected. An underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroidism, can set off fatigue, depression, weight gain, constipation, and dry skin.

But it can be difficult to diagnose because many of its symptoms could be attributed to other medical problems. This is especially true in people over 60, the Harvard experts say. Older people are likelier to have more medical issues, and some of those issues can be chronic. The Harvard experts cite the following issues that could, alone or in combination, meaning an underlying thyroid problem in someone over 60.

Unexplained high cholesterol. High cholesterol is sometimes the only evidence of an underactive thyroid in an older person, the Harvard experts say. Because this may be the only symptom, a thyroid evaluation should be given to any patient with a high cholesterol level.

Heart failure. Some effects of low thyroid hormone levels —reduced blood volume, weaker contractions of the heart muscle, and a slower heart rate — may contribute to heart failure, according to the Harvard experts (Heart failure is a condition ini which the heart doesn’t pump blood effectively to the muscles and organs.) Symptoms of heart failure include breathlessness, swelling in the ankles, weakness, and fatigue.

Changes in bowel movements. An older person with hypothyroidism might have constipation because of decreased movement of stool through the bowels. Occasionally, a patient will have frequent diarrhea, which is more typically a symptom of an overactive thyroid. Anyone with persistent or severe diarrhea should call his or her doctor.

Joint or muscle pain. Vague joint pain is a classic symptom of hypothyroidism, the Harvard experts say. In fact, it’s sometimes the only symptom of hypothyroidism in an older patient. Many people suffer an overall muscular aching, especially in large muscle groups.

Mental health concerns. Like younger people, older people can suffer depression because of an underactive thyroid. The Harvard experts point out older people may develop delusions or hallucinations.
Dementia. Debilitating memory loss could be a symptom of hypothyroidism. In any evaluation of dement, make sure that thyroid evaluation is one of the tests.
Problems with balance. Brain abnormalities that occur with an underactive thyroid may lead to walking problems in older people.
If you or someone you love is living with thyroid disease, learn how to take control of your condition and be an active participant in your care by reading Thyroid Disease, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.