Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What is the thyroid gland and what are thyroid disorders?
Your thyroid gland is a small structure in your neck that plays a huge role in your health. This important gland produces hormones that are essential to the proper functioning of vital organs such as your brain, heart, kidneys, and liver. Among other things, these hormones play key roles in metabolism—the process that allows you to get energy from food. The three hormones your thyroid gland produces are triiodothyronine (T3), thyroxine (T4), and calcitonin.
As you get older, you’re more likely to develop thyroid disorders. In addition to being more common with age, thyroid problems are more common in women than men. They also tend to run in families. If a close family member (such as your mother or sister) had or has thyroid disease, you may be at a higher risk of developing it as well.
Different thyroid problems cause different symptoms and are treated differently. Common thyroid disorders and problems include:
Hypothyroidism is a disorder in which your thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, usually of the thyroxine (T4) type of hormone. Your T4 levels can drop temporarily if you have an illness, such as infection, but go back to normal after you get better. If you have hypothyroidism, however, the levels of T4 in your blood will remain low. Your body will usually react by trying to stimulate the thyroid gland to produce more T4. A gland in the brain does this by producing a hormone knows as thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Most people who have an underactive thyroid gland will have low blood levels of T4 and high blood levels of TSH.
Hyperthyroidism is a disorder in which your thyroid gland produces a level of thyroid hormones that is too high. (It is also known as overactive thyroid and thyrotoxicosis.) Hyperthyroidism can speed up your body’s metabolism, causing a wide range of symptoms such as increased sweating and irregular heartbeat. But older adults may also develop a form of hyperthyroidism known as apathetic thyrotoxicosis, which causes many symptoms similar to hypothyroidism (when your thyroid gland produces too few thyroid hormones).
Thyroid nodules are solid or fluid-filled lumps that form in the thyroid gland.
Most thyroid nodules are benign, but in about 10% of cases, they become cancerous.
Updated: June 2017
Posted: March 2012