Is it aging, or your thyroid?

It weighs only 25 grams, but this butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck has a big job. Your thyroid produces important hormones that control heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and metabolism. When it doesn’t function as it should, it can cause a variety of symptoms such as fatigue and pain which are often overlooked or mistakenly attributed to the aging process. Thyroid conditions are more common than we think — more common than high-profile issues like diabetes or heart disease.

Should we be paying attention more attention to the signs? Experts argue yes. A poor-functioning thyroid gland can impact your overall health now and in the future. Left untreated, symptoms will grow worse over time. Thyroid conditions are also associated with cardiac disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and diabetes.

The two most common conditions include hypothyroidism — where the thyroid gland isn’t producing enough thyroid hormone, and hyperthyroidism — where your thyroid gland is producing too much of the hormone thyroxine. The first is equivalent to “running on fumes” while the second is more like “revving the engine”. Other conditions such as Graves Disease (an autoimmune disorder which produces an antibody that stimulates the thyroid) and thyroid cancers occur less often, but current research suggests that they are on the rise.

Treatment options are available, but many people still aren’t getting the help they need. According to the Thyroid Foundation of Canada and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), more than half of all people who have a thyroid condition remain undiagnosed.

Could you be one of them? Consider your risks and symptoms:

Risk factors

In addition to obesity and smoking, there are many factors that can contribute to your chances of developing a thyroid condition during your lifetime, including:

Heredity: You have a family member with a thyroid problem or an autoimmune disease.

History: You’ve been treated for a thyroid condition or disease in the past.

Sex: Women are five times more likely than men to have a thyroid condition. Women who have just had a baby, or who are menopausal or post-menopausal have a higher risk.

Pre-existing conditions: You have an autoimmune disease, pituitary or endocrine disease, or you’ve been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia. Thyroid disorders are often due to autoimmune disease.

Age: The older you are, the greater the risk. Some sources say people over the age of 50 are more at risk, while others push this number back to 60. Seniors are at the most risk.

Exposure to radiation (particularly to the neck). Excessive x-rays, radiation treatment and exposure to large amounts of radiation are risky.

Exposure to certain chemicals such as fluoride, or treatment with lithium. Again, we’re talking exposure to large amounts.


Is it aging… or something else? Different people cope with different combinations of symptoms, which could include the following:

Weight: You’ve gained or lost weight even though you haven’t changed your diet and exercise routine, or you’re have difficulty losing weight despite your best efforts.

Intolerance of hot or cold: You’re more sensitive to cold (a sign of hypothyroidism) or to heat (hyperthyroidism).

Hair, skin and nails: Your skin is becoming thick, coarse, dry and scaly and your nails are brittle. You may be losing your hair, or it’s become dry, coarse and brittle.

Fatigue: You’re feeling more tired than usual, exhausted, “run down” or sluggish.

Mood: Your moods change easily, and you’re feeling irritable, restless, anxious, or depressed. You experience anxiety attacks, or you’ve become disinterested in normal activities.

Memory and concentration: It’s seems a little harder to concentrate, and you’re not remembering things as well as before. Your thought processes feel “slow”.

Muscle and joint pain: You suffer from aches, pains, stiffness and swelling in your joints and muscles. You may have developed of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome — or it’s gotten worse.

Eye problems: Your eyes feel dry and gritty, and you may be sensitive to light. Swelling or “puffiness” around the eyes and face are also potential symptoms.

Voice: You have a hoarse or “gravely” voice.

Menstruation: Heavier or lighter, shorter or longer, irregular or more painful, changes to your cycle could indicate trouble.

Heart rate: You experience a rapid or irregular heart beat.

Bowel patterns: You have more frequent bowel movements or constipation.

Sleeping: You experience changes to your sleep patterns, including difficulty sleeping, snoring or sleep apnea.

Though sudden changes can certainly be a sign of problems, it’s important to note that symptoms can develop slowly over time.

Should you talk to your doctor?

Do these symptoms sound familiar? It’s important to talk to your doctor if you suspect you have a thyroid condition — especially if you’re in the high risk group. If left alone, symptoms generally increase over time, but with treatment they usually resolve themselves. More serious symptoms — such as swelling and pain in the neck or throat, a lump or nodule, and difficulties breathing or swallowing — could be signs of thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer is one of the most curable forms of cancer, according to the AACE.

As you’ve likely noticed, these symptoms could be caused by other conditions such as arthritis, stress, irritable bowel syndrome, depression and even the aging process itself. Whatever the cause, these issues are likely impacting your quality of life and therefore warrant further investigation. A clinical evaluation — including an examination of your thyroid and possibly fingernails, hair and eyes — and blood tests can diagnose (or rule out) thyroid conditions. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor, and then decide how to proceed.

For more information, take a look at one of the sources we used for this article:

The Mayo Clinic