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Healthy Geezer

Seniors: Get those TSH tests

By Fred Cicetti | Feb 07, 2013

Q. My doctor ordered a TSH test. What is that?

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the middle of the lower neck. It produces hormones that control metabolism, which are the chemical processes cells in the body perform to keep us alive.

It should come as no surprise that the thyroid gland often peters out as we get older. The thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test checks to see if your thyroid is producing the right amount of hormone for your system. If the gland is making too much hormone, you get hyperthyroidism; if it makes too little, you get hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism is very common in people over 60 years of age; the incidence of it steadily increases with age. About 25 percent of people in nursing homes may have undiagnosed hypothyroidism, because the symptoms of this condition can be misinterpreted as signs of aging.

The Thyroid Foundation of America recommends that people over 50 years old get a TSH test at least once every five years, and more often if there are symptoms. When thyroid disease is caught early, treatment can control the disorder even before there are symptoms.

The symptoms of hypothyroidism include: fatigue, intolerance to cold, constipation, forgetfulness, muscle cramps, hair loss, depression, weight gain, dry skin, hoarseness and mood swings.

The symptoms of hyperthyroidism include: weight loss (not always in seniors), heat intolerance, hyperactivity, muscle weakness, palpitations, tremors, nervousness, irritability, insomnia, enlarged thyroid gland, frequent bowel movements, vision problems or eye irritation.

Q. I recall an episode of Seinfeld that got a lot of laughs about man breasts. I have them and it’s not funny. Is there a cure?

Breast enlargement in males is common. About 30 percent of older men have this condition, which can be caused by hormonal changes or simple weight gain.

When the usual balance of the female hormone estrogen and the male hormone testosterone in a man shifts, he can get “gynecomastia,” which is derived from two Greek words that mean “woman” and “breast.”

Males normally produce small quantities of estrogen to regulate bone density, sperm production and mood. Natural hormonal changes that lead to gynecomastia occur not only in old age, but also during infancy and adolescence.

Gynecomastia can be caused by a health problem such as liver, kidney or thyroid diseases. And, this condition can also result from drinking alcohol or taking drugs such as steroids, marijuana, amphetamines and heroin. There are medications that can cause gynecomastia, too.

If you have enlarged breasts, see your doctor for a check-up. Enlarged breasts can be a symptom of breast cancer or a testicular tumor.

Gynecomastia usually will go away without treatment. This condition is often treated with drugs. Sometimes, enlarged breasts are reduced surgically.

Q. Can copper bracelets treat arthritis?

There is no scientific evidence that copper bracelets do anything more than make a fashion statement. However, there is no proof that the bracelets don’t provide relief to arthritis sufferers.

Copper bracelets for arthritis have been around for a century or more. Many people swear that they work. Some doctors suspect that the positive reports are based upon symptoms going away by themselves.

Folk remedies like copper bracelets seem to be harmless. However, they often delay effective medical treatment, so these so-called “cures” are not completely benign.

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