Thyroid Problems

Symptoms

Hypothyroidism 

In older adults, hypothyroidism is often asymptomatic (meaning it doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms) early on. If your healthcare provider thinks you might have hypothyroidism, even though you don’t have noticeable symptoms, he or she can use blood tests to check.  

If hypothyroidism isn’t treated, the symptoms get worse and more noticeable. You should contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you notice these common symptoms of the disease:

  • Low energy levels and slowed thinking
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Muscle weakness, aches, tenderness, or stiffness
  • Constipation
  • Pain, stiffness, or swelling in your joints
  • Increased sensitivity to cold, or numbness
  • Pale, dry skin
  • Brittle fingernails and hair
  • Swelling in the face
  • Erectile dysfunction (difficulty getting an erection)

Hypothyroidism should be treated as soon as possible. If it is untreated, it can lead to other serious health problems such as goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland).  This may eventually make it difficult to swallow or breathe. Untreated hypothyroidism can also increase your risk of heart disease, an enlarged heart, and heart failure. Over time, it can damage your nerves and cause loss of muscle control as well.

Advanced untreated hypothyroidism can lead to a fatal complication known as “myxedema coma.” Warning signs of myxedema coma include: Shallow breathing, unresponsiveness, below-normal body temperature, low blood pressure, and low blood-sugar levels. Call 911 for immediate emergency care if you or someone else has these symptoms. In older adults with mild hypothyroidism, a serious non-thyroid illness may aggravate the hypothyroidism, placing the adult at risk for myxedema coma.

Hyperthyroidism

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism are often different in later adulthood than in early adulthood. In younger adults, hyperthyroidism typically causes such symptoms as hyperactivity and weight loss. The following symptoms are most common among older adults with hyperthyroidism:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms (such as atrial fibrillation or a rapid heartbeat)
  • Heart failure
  • Muscle weakness and loss of muscle
  • Difficulty tolerating heat and increased sweating
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Graves’ ophthalmopathy, a symptom of Grave’s disease in which the eyes begin to bulge outward. Graves’ ophthalmopathy is more common among older than younger adults with hyperthyroidism
  • Erectile dysfunction

Thyroid disorders can also cause psychiatric symptoms, including mania, panic attacks, and anxiety.

Older adults with the form of hyperthyroidism known as apathetic thyrotoxicosis often have the following symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Bone loss
  • Inactivity and lack of energy
  • Muscle weakness

Thyroid Nodules

Many thyroid nodules cause no obvious symptoms and most people don’t realize they have a nodule until their healthcare provider detects it during a routine check-up. Approximately 90% of women over 70 years old and 60% of men over 80 years old have thyroid nodules. Most of these nodules are not palpable (which means your healthcare provider cannot feel them). These nodules are often detected incidentally on imaging studies done for other reasons. Sometimes, though, a nodule can get big enough to be noticeable. Thyroid nodules may eventually get large enough for you to see, or they may press on your throat, making it is uncomfortable or difficult to breathe or swallow.

Some nodules increase the amount of triiodothyronine hormone (T3) that your thyroid produces, causing symptoms of hyperthyroidism. A small percentage of thyroid nodules become cancerous.

Updated: June 2017