Women are five to eight times more likely than men to develop thyroid disease, according to the American Thyroid Association (ATA). One in every eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during their lifetime. It is not scientifically known why women are so vulnerable to thyroid disease, though it is suspected that the development of thyroid disease is linked to autoimmunity which is more commonly found in women than men. Thyroid problems, which are often hereditary, can affect women of any age but are particularly prevalent in women who recently gave birth or are undergoing menopause. Women age 60 and older are at a higher risk for thyroid gland problems.
How does the thyroid function, particularly as it pertains to women?
The thyroid is a hormone-producing gland that regulates the body’s metabolism and growth and secretes the following hormones:
- Thyroxine (T4)
- Triiodothyronine (T3)
What are the types of thyroid diseases?
When the thyroid does not function properly it either releases too much thyroxine (T4) or not enough. The three main disorders this process leads to are:
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Signs include fatigue, dry skin, increased sensitivity to cold, memory problems, constipation, depression, weight gain, weakness and slow heart rate.
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Signs include restlessness, nervousness, racing heart, irritability, sweating, shaking, anxiety, trouble sleeping, thin skin, brittle hair and nails, muscle weakness, weight loss and bulging eyes in certain cases.
- Thyroid cancer (four major types: Papillary, follicular, medullary, anaplastic)
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism affect women more often than men. Hypothyroidism may occur because the pituitary gland or the thyroid itself is not functioning properly. This type of thyroid disease is more likely to develop in women post-menopause. Hypothyroidism that is not treated with medicine during pregnancy can cause:
- Low birth weight
- Problems with the baby's growth and brain development
Hyperthyroidism that is not treated with medicine during pregnancy can cause:
- Fast heart rate in the newborn
- Low birth weight
- Preeclampsia, a serious condition starting after 20 weeks of pregnancy causing high blood pressure and problems with the kidneys and other organs
- Premature birth
An overactive thyroid is not as common as an underactive thyroid, affecting a little over 1% of the American population as opposed to underactive thyroids, which affects nearly 5%.
How does thyroid disease affect pregnancy?
Both disorders can make it harder for women to get pregnant, as problems with the thyroid hormone can upset the balance of the hormones that cause ovulation. Hypothyroidism can also cause a woman’s body to make more prolactin, the hormone that tells the body to make breastmilk. Too much prolactin can suppress ovulation. Women with hyperthyroidism during pregnancy are at a higher risk of enduring severe morning sickness.
How else does thyroid disease affect women?
The imbalance in thyroid hormone levels, as described above, may also result in heavy or irregular menstrual periods, or even absent periods – a condition called amenorrhea. Thyroid disorders may cause early-onset menopause (before age 40 or in the early 40s). Some symptoms of hyperthyroidism may also be mistaken for early menopause. Undiagnosed thyroid disease may put patients at risk for serious conditions like cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and infertility. Individuals should talk to a health care provider if they notice symptoms, such as fatigue, dry skin, puffy face or unexplained weight loss or weight gain. Gina Lynem-Walker, M. D., is an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. More from MIBluesPerspectives: