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Hypothyroidism Screening of Older Adults Could Improve Lives


Screening for hypothyroidism, a disease that affects up to 2 percent of women older than 50, could significantly improve quality of life for many older adults. That is the finding of researchers from the United Kingdom.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism are often overlooked

Symptoms of hypothyroidism typically include feeling tired or depressed, constipation, dry skin, weight gain, memory problems, and not being able to stand the cold. Since these symptoms usually come on gradually and are easy to attribute to growing older, they are often overlooked by older adults, the population most likely to suffer with hypothyroidism.

A simple blood test can be used to screen for an underactive thyroid gland, which will reveal elevated levels of thyroid stimulating hormone in people who have the disease. Once the disease is identified, treatment with thyroid hormone medication can be started, and symptoms are usually resolved within a few months.

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Researchers from the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, University of London, conducted a randomized, double-blind, cross-over trial that initially looked at data from more than 4,000 men (ages 65-79) and women (ages 35-79) who had their TSH levels taken at BUPA Wellness Centres.

Of these individuals, 8 percent (341) had elevated TSH levels (4.0 mU/L or higher), but because of distance problems and other factors, 56 individuals (49 women, 7 men, mean age 58 years) were in the final selection. These participants were assigned to take thyroxine (thyroid hormone) or placebo in random order each for four months.

Of the 15 people who had repeat TSH levels higher than 4.5 mU/L, 11 said they felt better while taking thyroxine than placebo and none said they felt better on placebo (a 73% benefit). Tiredness and loss of memory were the main symptoms relieved. Among the 41 individuals who had a repeat TSH of 4.5 mU/L or less, 10 felt better on thyroxine than placebo, 15 felt no different, and 16 felt better on placebo.

The researchers concluded that about 1 percent of people screened for hypothyroidism could enjoy a better quality of life. According to Professor Sir Nicholas Wald, director of the Wolfson Institute, “this research shows that screening adults for hypothyroidism would be worthwhile,” and that screening “could provide a new lease of life.”

Abu-Helalah M et al. Journal of Medical Screening 2010; 17:164-69