Often older adults don’t have symptoms of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). If they don’t or have only minor symptoms, treatment may not be necessary.
A person’s health can get worse, if they have troubling symptoms. In this case, hypothyroidism needs treatment. A healthcare professional can order blood tests to check thyroid hormone levels to see if a person’s thyroid may be the source of a problem.
Contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you notice these common symptoms of hypothyroidism:
- Low energy levels and slowed thinking
- Weight gain
- Anemia (low red blood cell counts) or hyponatremia (low salt levels in the blood)
- Muscle weakness, aches, tenderness, or stiffness
- Pain, stiffness, or swelling in the joints
- Increased awareness of the cold, or numbness
- Pale, dry skin
- Brittle fingernails and hair
- Swelling in the face
- Erectile dysfunction (difficulty getting an erection)
Hypothyroidism symptoms can be slow to arise and falsely suggest other diseases. Other diseases or medications can cause thyroid problems. In this case, these conditions are the ones that need treatment and providing additional thyroid hormone may harm the person.
Untreated hypothyroidism that is causing health problems needs treatment as soon as possible. Lack of treatment can:
- Cause goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland). Goiter can make it difficult to swallow or breathe.
- Increase the risk of heart disease, an enlarged heart, and heart failure. Over time, it can also damage your nerves and cause loss of muscle control.
Advanced untreated hypothyroidism can lead to a fatal condition named myxedema coma. Warning signs include:
- shallow breathing
- below-normal body temperature
- Low blood pressure
- low blood-sugar levels.
In older adults with mild hypothyroidism, a serious non-thyroid illness may increase the risk for myxedema coma.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism differ by age. Younger adults will have different symptoms. Older adults with hyperthyroidism can have:
- 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, where the eyes begin to bulge outward.
- Erectile dysfunction
- Mental health problems, like depression, panic attacks, and anxiety
Older adults with the type of hyperthyroidism called apathetic thyrotoxicosis often have the following symptoms:
- Bone loss
- Inactivity and lack of energy
- Muscle weakness
Many thyroid nodules cause minor symptoms. Most people don’t realize they have a nodule until their healthcare provider finds it during a check-up. However, healthcare providers can’t feel most thyroid nodules with their hands. So providers often find them on imaging studies done for other reasons.
Sometimes a nodule can get big enough to see or make it difficult to breathe or swallow.
Some nodules increase the amount of triiodothyronine hormone (T3) that the thyroid produces, causing symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Last Updated December 2022