Senior woman leaning on exercise ball holding salad

How Does Thyroid Function Change with Age?

January is Thyroid Awareness Month, which marks an opportunity for people everywhere to learn more about the thyroid, its function and the potential health risks. Discussions are encouraged around all aspects of thyroid health, including the conditions and symptoms, the importance of diagnosis and potential treatment options.

For seniors, understanding the role of the thyroid, potential health risks, prevention tips and treatment plans are all part of building a happy, healthy future.

What is a Thyroid?

While it may not be as well-known or as frequently discussed as the lungs, the heart or the stomach, the thyroid gland actually plays a critical role in maintaining overall health. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ located in the base of the neck. It releases hormones that control metabolism, which is the way the body uses energy. Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced by the pituitary gland, which helps regulate hormone production and metabolism throughout the body. The thyroid’s hormones regulate many vital body functions, including:

  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Central and peripheral nervous systems
  • Body weight
  • Muscle strength
  • Menstrual cycles
  • Body temperature
  • Cholesterol levels

Common Thyroid Conditions

The two most common thyroid conditions occur when the thyroid gland is either over-performing or under-performing. These conditions are:


Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, is a condition where the thyroid gland does not produce enough of certain crucial hormones. For seniors, hypothyroidism often does not cause noticeable symptoms in the beginning. If this condition is not treated, it will worsen and the symptoms will become more noticeable and severe. Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to enlargement of the thyroid gland, which can cause difficulty breathing and swallowing. It can also increase the risk of heart disease and heart failure.


Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxine; thyroxine plays a vital role in digestion, heart and muscle functioning. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism can differ widely, depending on the age of the person.

How Does Thyroid Function Change with Age?

While thyroid problems can be hereditary, they also become more common with age. Thyroid issues are more frequent in people over the age of 65 and are often difficult to diagnose because symptoms present differently than in younger people.

Thyroid-stimulating hormone can vary wildly based on age, sex and stage of life. Additionally, various factors like stress, diet and medications can cause TSH to fluctuate. However, abnormal TSH can indicate that the thyroid gland isn’t functioning properly. The most common thyroid problems are:

  • Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid does not make enough thyroid hormone. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
    • Depression
    • Weight gain
    • Low energy levels or slow thinking
    • Constipation
    • Increased sensitivity to cold
    • Muscle weakness, tenderness, aches or stiffness
    • Pain or swelling in the joints
    • Dry skin
    • Brittleness in hair and fingernails
    • Erectile dysfunction
  • Hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, happens when the thyroid gland makes too much thyroid hormone. Older adults may also have a form of hyperthyroidism known as apathetic thyrotoxicosis, which causes many symptoms similar to hypothyroidism. For young adults, hyperthyroidism typically presents with weight loss and hyperactivity. For seniors, more common symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
    • Heart failure
    • Muscle weakness and loss of muscle
    • Frequent bowel movements
    • Difficulty tolerating heart and increased sweating
    • Abnormal heart rhythms
    • Graves’ ophthalmopathy, or a bulging of the eyes
    • Erectile dysfunction
  • Thyroid nodules are solid or fluid-filled lumps in the thyroid gland. Most thyroid nodules don’t cause signs or symptoms; however, some nodules become so large that they can:
    • Be felt
    • Be seen, often as a swelling at the base of your neck
    • Press on your windpipe or esophagus, causing shortness of breath or difficulty swallowing

In some cases, thyroid nodules produce additional thyroxine, a hormone secreted by the thyroid gland. The extra thyroxine can cause symptoms of an overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism), such as:

    • Unexplained weight loss
    • Increased sweating
    • Tremor
    • Nervousness
    • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Thyroid cancer occurs in about 10% of thyroid nodules. Symptoms of thyroid cancer include:
    • A lump that can be felt through the skin on the neck
    • The feeling that close-fitting shirt collars are becoming too tight
    • Voice changes, including increasing hoarseness
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
    • Pain in the neck and throat

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism in older adults are especially difficult to diagnose because they often masquerade as heart or nervous system disorders. Seniors with either thyroid condition can demonstrate signs of confusion, heart failure, depression, changes in bowel habits and an increase in falls. These same symptoms are very common in many conditions associated with aging, which can mask the underlying issue.

Thyroid Testing and Treatment

While there is no medical consensus about whether to screen older adults with no symptoms of thyroid disease, testing is encouraged for older adults who do have symptoms or who have decreased cognitive function and who are unable to identify if they have symptoms.

Under a doctor’s supervision, there are medications that can manage both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. However, many studies show that lifestyle changes can also have a positive impact on both conditions. It is encouraged for older adults with low thyroid function to speak with their medical care team about starting an exercise program and making positive lifestyle changes.

About Tutera Senior Living & Health Care

At Tutera Senior Living & Health Care, we recognize that, to live your best life, your needs, wants and preferences have to come first. We are committed to:

  • Enabling healthy-as-possible outcomes
  • Encouraging continued personal growth
  • Empowering the ability to direct and control daily living decisions

Each resident’s personal goals and opinions are at the heart of everything we do at Tutera Senior Living. We refer to this as our YOUNITE philosophy – one that is built around you from the very moment you move in and each day after. We get to know your likes, dislikes, goals, dreams and challenges, and we create a unique living and health care experience that is just right for you. Each Tutera Senior Living community offers services, amenities, team members and culture that work together to encourage residents’ independence and to respect their individuality. Tutera Senior Living has communities that offer:

Interested in finding a Tutera Senior Living community near you? Our location finder can help you do just that! Have questions about the care, nutrition planning and culture at Tutera communities? Contact us today for answers!

Learn more by clicking on the community links below:

The Atriums Senior Living Community
Bethany Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Carlinville Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Carnegie Village Senior Living Community
Charlton Place Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Continua Home Health
Coulterville Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Country Gardens Assisted Living Community
Crystal Pines Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Dixon Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Fair Oaks Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Hamilton Memorial Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Highland Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Hillsboro Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Lakeland Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Lamar Court Assisted Living Community
Mattoon Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Meridian Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Metropolis Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Mission Chateau Senior Living Community
Monterey Park Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Moweaqua Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Norterre - The Estoria
Norterre - The Laurel Assisted Living and Memory Care
Northland Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Oakley Courts Assisted Living & Memory Care Community
Rose Estates Assisted Living Community
St. Paul's Senior Community
Stratford Commons Memory Care Community
Stratford Commons Rehabilitation & Health Care Center
Tiffany Springs Senior Living Community
The Lodge at Manito Assisted Living & Memory Care Community
Victory Hills Senior Living Community
The Village at Mission Senior Living Community
Wesley Court Assisted Living Community
Westview of Derby Rehabilitation & Health Care Center