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Your Elder’s Thyroid Connection

older woman's thyroidThere is an epidemic going on, and it involves that butterfly shaped gland in the neck call the thyroid. Since 2002 the prevalence has doubled in the US, but this is not because twice as many people have developed hypothyroidism as it is that the professional society that represents endocrinologists established new standards. The new standards for defining hypothyroidism have reduced the TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) range to be .3 to 3.0 from the earlier standard that had been about .5 to 5.0. And this is not just a trivial matter of definitions when what had been about 15 million people with hypothyroidism suddenly becomes about 27 million Americans. This is about one in ten Americans, and the prevalence of hypothyroidism is about twice as high among women over 60 years as it is for their younger counterparts. (Just for what it’s worth, this is more people than the number diagnosed as diabetic in America.)
Hypothyroidism is important also because there is a big connection between the thyroid gland in your older loved one’s neck and their brain and heart. For anyone whose TSH levels are out of range, the impact on the heart would be through the potential for significantly elevated cholesterol levels. It is estimated that this could be as many as 10 million Americans. So, for people whose thyroid condition has not been diagnosed, but they have been put on lipid-lowering agents like the statins, their cure may be even easier. By taking a thyroid supplement, suddenly cholesterol levels may become better managed. Yet, fewer than half the adults with diagnosed elevated cholesterol levels in a recent survey were aware if they had ever been tested for elevated TSH levels.
I had mentioned the brain connection, and there are two significant brain manifestations of hypothyroidism. Patients who are out of range on their TSH levels may be depressed or they may display signs of delirium. The former may have led to treatment with antidepressants, treatments that may now prove unnecessary, and the latter may be confused with dementia if the delirium goes unchecked over time.
And there are other symptoms of hypothyroidism that you should be looking for if you are a caregiver to an older loved one:
• thin, brittle, dry hair or skin
• increased sensitivity to cold
• fatigue
• muscle or joint pains
• constipation.
You don’t need to remember all the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism, but you should remember to ask your loved one’s physicians at the next annual physical what your loved one’s TSH level is. If the number is too high or too low, begin advocating for help to avoid the other conditions. Yes, your loved one may take home one new prescription, but they also may get rid of one or more existing prescriptions…and feel a lot better.
Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to


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