Underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, occurs when your thyroid hormone level gets too low, triggering a wide range of possible symptoms. Fatigue, depression, weight gain, constipation and dry skin can all signal an underlying thyroid disorder, but these symptoms may also be caused by other health conditions.
How can you determine if your symptoms are due to a thyroid problem? Harvard Medical School recommends using the following guide. Women are much more likely to have thyroid problems than men, and may have up to a one in five chance of developing thyroid problems during their lifetime.
The risk also increases with age, so if you’re over 60 and have any of the following seven signs (alone or in combination, whether you’re a man or a woman), see your health care provider to rule out a potential thyroid issue.
7 Signs You Could Have Hypothyroidism
- Unexplained high cholesterol: This may be the only symptom of underactive thyroid in a person over 60.
- Heart failure: Low thyroid hormone levels can lead to reduced blood volume, weaker contractions in your heart muscle and a slower heart rate, all of which may contribute to heart failure. If you have heart failure, your heart can’t pump blood effectively to your muscles and organs, leading to symptoms such as breathlessness, ankle swelling, weakness and fatigue.
- Changes in bowel movement: Constipation may be a sign of hypothyroidism due to decreased movement of stool through your bowels. Underactive thyroid may also lead to frequent bouts of diarrhea, although this is less common.
- Joint or muscle pain: According to Harvard Medical School, “Vague joint pain is a classic symptom of hypothyroidism. It sometimes is the only symptom of hypothyroidism in an older patient, although many experience an overall muscular aching, particularly in large muscle groups.”
- Mental health concerns: Depression may be the only symptom of hypothyroidism in an older person. You may also experience delusions, hallucinations or other psychiatric symptoms.
- Dementia: If you’ve been experiencing debilitating memory loss, or dementia, be sure you are tested for thyroid problems. Dementia may be a sign of hypothyroidism in older adults, especially if it’s combined with depression or psychosis.
- Problems with balance: Underactive thyroid may lead to abnormalities in the cerebellum at the back of your brain, which may lead to walking problems.
If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to obesity, goiter (thyroid enlargement) and heart issues, but because the symptoms may be mild at first, and can mimic other diseases, or even be attributed to aging, many people do not realize the thyroid connection. If you’re in doubt, see your doctor for thyroid testing.
For more information on thyroid health, including how to support it via your diet, be sure to read Nutrition for Thyroid Health: Foods that Help and Harm.