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What are the first three words that come to mind when you think of normal aging? Wrinkles, gray hair, and weight gain. Maybe it’s also associated with slowing down, having trouble moving, and forgetting things.
While those words are a good description of natural and healthy aging, they also can be used to describe signs and symptoms of a disease called hypothyroidism, a condition where your thyroid hormone level is too low, directly impacting your quality of life. So if you have hypothyroidism, does that mean you age earlier? To answer that, let’s examine your thyroid hormone's role in those “aging” symptoms. But first, let’s talk about the thyroid hormone and its importance.
Your thyroid is a tiny gland at the base of your neck. Its main role is making hormones that help regulate how your body uses energy. Thyroid hormone travels in your bloodstream and increases or decreases based on your energy demand. When your energy demand is high, your thyroid hormone levels increase. Because of this, your cells will work faster to meet the demand of the body causing your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure to increase. When your energy demand decreases, your thyroid hormone levels, breathing, and heart rate will return to normal.
Besides regulating your breathing and heart rate, thyroid hormone regulates your body temperature and helps keep your skin, hair, and nails healthy. Just about every cell in your body needs thyroid hormone to function correctly.
Normally, your body can balance how much thyroid hormone your cells need. However, there are certain conditions where your body makes too much or too little. When you have “too much” thyroid hormone it is called hyperthyroidism while “too little” is called hypothyroidism. We are going to focus on hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism, also known as an underactive thyroid function, is when your thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone to meet your body’s needs. Since the thyroid hormone regulates your metabolism or how your body utilizes energy, your body cells will start to “slow down,” leading to your symptoms of hypothyroidism. Indications for treatment may include:
While these are symptoms of an underactive thyroid, they could also be signs of natural aging. Let’s take a closer look at other symptoms of thyroid dysfunction, such as hypothyroidism which may make you feel like you are aging quicker than expected.
Skin cell turnover is a constant process where new cells are made to replace old ones. Typically, this process takes 40 to 56 days. In hypothyroidism, the time it takes for the skin cells to turn over increases. Because of this, your old cells stay on your skin longer. This will cause your skin to start feeling dry, rough, and scaly. You may start to notice wrinkles appearing or your skin starting to sag.
Older cells also have excessive melanin which is responsible for skin coloring. This will cause certain areas (usually little spots or patches) on your skin to become darker, a process called hyperpigmentation. Some may refer to these areas as sun or age spots.
Hair and nail changes
The life cycle of your hair has 4 phases: anagen (growing), catagen (no growth), telogen (resting), and exogen (shedding). On average, you can shed up to 150 hairs per day, but it is replaced by new growth right away.
Hypothyroidism in patients can cause the life cycle of your hair is prolonged. Therefore, when you shed your old hair, there might not always be new hair to replace it, leading to hair loss. The new hair that slowly grows back will be dry, brittle, and lacking in color. This lack of color is what causes gray hair.
The hair on your head is not the only hair affected by low thyroid hormone levels. You may start to notice hair loss on your eyebrows. Typically, eyebrow hair loss is seen on the outer ends.
Like your hair, your nails are equally affected. Since the nail growth process slows down, keratin cells, a type of protein needed for nail growth, builds up causing ridges to form on your nails. You may also notice that your nails are thin and brittle making them easier to break.
Muscle and joint aches
Muscles need thyroid hormone for muscle contractions, a process where your muscles tighten, shorten or lengthen to help you complete an activity. As you age, your muscle tone decreases. When this occurs, your muscles are not able to contract as much. In addition to muscle changes, your joints become stiff and less flexible. This is thought to be due to the decreasing amounts of cartilage and fluid in your joints to help them move smoothly.
Hypothyroidism exacerbates your muscle and joint aches and pains. This is because when your thyroid hormone level is low, your muscles are limited in how often they can contract. Because of this, you can feel weak, achy, and stiff making it hard to get around or complete your everyday tasks.
A decline in your thought, thinking, and memory are considered normal as you age. An estimated 40% of people over the age of 65 will develop age-associated memory impairment with another 10% developing mild cognitive impairment. While these are two different types of impairment, both are associated with memory loss.
Studies have shown that when your thyroid levels are too low, it affects your ability to think clearly and your memory. Some may refer to it as “brain fog” which can be described as being in a haze and having a hard time remembering or concentrating on tasks. Thus mimicking memory loss seen in natural aging.
While all the above symptoms sound like premature aging, there is one other important fact to consider. Hypothyroidism is manageable, unlike natural aging, which will progress regardless. With proper treatment, your thyroid hormone function will return to normal, thus reversing some of your “aging” symptoms over time. With untreated hypothyroidism, you will continue to experience symptoms that can mimic premature aging.
And the final answer is: true. But only if left untreated.
The first step toward treating hypothyroidism and reversing those symptoms of aging is to get your thyroid level checked. You can do this at home with our affordable and convenient Complete Thyroid Blood Test. The Paloma at-home thyroid test kit measures Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), Free Thyroxine (Free T4), Free Triiodothyronine (Free T3), and Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies (TPO) blood levels, with an option to add on tests for Reverse T3 (RT3) and vitamin D. Our thyroid doctors can follow up with you on a tailored plan of care to treat everything hypothyroid-related.