Risk Factors — What’s Threatening Your Thyroid

When we think about keeping ourselves healthy, we often focus on the big organs and body systems like the cardiovascular system or the nervous system. 

But even the tiniest of glands can make a huge difference in our wellbeing.

Your thyroid weighs somewhere between half of an ounce and just under one ounce – yet it’s responsible for the metabolism process of every cell in your body. When it goes awry, you’re going to feel the negative consequences.

Risk Factors — What's Threatening Your Thyroid

There are a few thyroid disorders and diseases that can harm your health. Wondering if you’re at risk? Let’s take a closer look at 3 common thyroid diseases and who is most likely to develop them.

Thyroid 101

Before we get to symptoms and risk factors, let’s get some groundwork on the thyroid itself.

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This small gland in your neck produces two main hormones: T3 and T4. These are responsible for things like metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature production.

The pituitary gland (the “master” gland) is responsible for sending Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) to your thyroid to tell it to kick into gear and produce its hormones in the right amount. 

In a healthy thyroid, this process works perfectly. In an unhealthy thyroid, these hormones misbehave by either putting out too much or too little. And in terms of cancer, the thyroid cells themselves start producing too rapidly and get out of control. 

Warning: Anyone Is at Risk

Clearly, nobody wants a problematic thyroid.

Though we’re about to see who has a higher risk of these thyroid diseases, it is important to understand anybody can get a thyroid disease. You might seem like a person so far away from the risk factors and still wind up with a thyroid disorder.

Pay attention to the symptoms and always see a doctor if something feels off.

Thyroid Disease #1: Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is the condition where your thyroid is not producing enough T3 and T4. This means your body’s metabolism process slows down and all your body systems become sluggish. 

Symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Trouble tolerating the cold 
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Weight gain
  • Puffy face
  • Hoarseness
  • Elevated blood cholesterol levels
  • Decreased sweating
  • Muscle aches, weakness, tenderness, or stiffness
  • Joint pain
  • Heavy, irregular, or missed periods
  • Dry or thinning hair
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression
  • Impaired memory
  • Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)

Causes of hypothyroidism include:

  • Hashimoto’s disease: This common cause is an immune system disorder causing your body to produce antibodies that interfere with your thyroid’s hormone production. 
  • Thyroid surgery: If some or all of your thyroid has been removed, you will no longer be producing enough thyroid hormones.
  • Radiation therapy: Those who treat their cancer near the thyroid region with radiation may end up with hypothyroidism.
  • Hyperthyroid treatment: Anti-thyroid medications can sometimes tip the scales too far the other way.
  • Various medications: Lithium is a common one

Risk Factors of Hypothyroidism

So, who is most likely at risk for developing hypothyroidism?

1. Gender

Woman are far more likely than men to develop hypothyroidism (a theme you’ll begin to notice throughout this list).

Why more women? Some suspect that female reproductive hormones may be impacting thyroid hormones in ways that male reproductive hormones are not.

2. Age

Those older than 60 have a higher risk of developing this thyroid disorder. (But realize even infants can get it – it’s not just a condition of the elderly).

That, along with the fact that more women develop hypothyroidism, is why so many women mistake menopause with hypothyroidism and vice versa.

3. Family History

You can probably guess that when one of your family members suffers from hypothyroidism, your odds go up for developing it as well (and you’d be right!).

But the family history connection doesn’t stop there.

Family history of any thyroid disease and even immune system problems (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, type 2 diabetes, etc.) ups your odds of the disorder too.

4. Medical Conditions

Any time you have an autoimmune condition (like type 1 diabetes or celiac disease, for example), your risk of hypothyroidism goes up too. Some of these conditions can have similar symptoms, so have your doctor check your thyroid if you are concerned.

5. Medications/Operations

There are quite a few different operations or medications that make you more vulnerable to having too little thyroid hormones, including:

  • Radioactive iodine
  • Anti-thyroid medication
  • Radiation around thyroid area (neck, for example)
  • Previous thyroid surgery
  • Lithium

6. Pregnancy

According to Winchester Hospital, around 10% of women get an inflamed thyroid postpartum. So, if you have been pregnant or delivered within the past 6 months, you can wind up with hypothyroidism too.

If it develops during your pregnancy, synthetic hormones are often considered safe. You should be just fine.

Thyroid Disease #2: Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism is the condition where your body produces too much T3 and T4. This means your body systems speed up and go into overdrive. Symptoms include: 

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Irregular heartbeat 
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased appetite
  • Fatigue 
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness, anxiety, irritability, or mood swings
  • Shakiness (often hands)
  • Sweating
  • Menstrual cycle changes
  • Trouble tolerating heat
  • More frequent bowel movements
  • Diarrhea
  • Goiter
  • Muscle weakness
  • Skin thinning
  • Fine, brittle hair

Causes of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Graves’ disease: An immune system disorder causing overproduction of T3 and T4
  • Thyroiditis: Inflammation in your thyroid 
  • Hyper-functioning thyroid nodules: Lumps in your thyroid (noncancerous) 
  • Too much Iodine

Risk Factors of Hyperthyroidism

Here are the factors that up your odds of developing hyperthyroidism:

1. Gender

No surprise here: women get hyperthyroidism more frequently. In fact, hyperthyroidism is found in women 5 to 10 times more than in men. One of the reasons for this is that Graves’ disease – the #1 cause of hyperthyroidism – is also more common in women.

2. Age

Graves’ disease is more common among people under the age of 40. Interestingly, hyperthyroidism is still more commonly found in people over the age of 60. Moral to this story: age often varies.

3. Ethnicity

Studies show that Japanese people tend to have more cases of hyperthyroidism. Some believe this has more to do with a diet rich in iodine than it does with genetics.

It also has a lot to do with Graves’ disease.

WebMD shows us that Asian and Pacific Islander women have a Graves’ disease risk 78% higher than Caucasian women. Though the men’s risk isn’t as severe, it’s still higher as well. 

Researchers are still in the process of discovering if this has more to do with genetics or with environment.

4. Family History

If you have family members with Graves’ disease or hyperthyroidism, your chances go up too. This is mostly true in 1st degree relations: mom, dad, brother, and sister.

5. Medical Conditions

These risk factors include chronic illness like diabetes or primary adrenal insufficiency, any history of autoimmune disorders, and even some viral infections.

Then the obvious medical condition factor: Graves’ disease. But what are the risk factors for Graves’ disease itself?

  • Woman
  • Under 40
  • Family history of Graves’
  • Any immune system disorders
  • Emotional or physical stress (typically a big stressful event or medical operation)
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking cigarettes

6. Diet

Eating too much iodine can increase your thyroid hormones to a harmful level. Some top sources of iodine include: 

  • Seaweed (can sometimes have almost 2000% of the daily recommended value)
  • Cod
  • Plain yogurt
  • Iodized salt
  • Milk
  • White bread
  • Canned fruit cocktail 
  • Shrimp

If you are concerned about the possibility of hyperthyroidism, limiting both seafood and dairy can be a helpful step. 

Thyroid Disease #3: Thyroid Cancer

The American Cancer Society has estimated that around 52,070 people will develop a new case of thyroid cancer in 2019 (compare that to the 268,600 cases of breast cancer). 

Thyroid cancer is actually the type of cancer with the most rapidly increasing rates in the United States. That fact may be related not to there actually being more cases, but to the improvement of technology that can diagnose thyroid cancer.

Fortunately, the death rate is relatively low.

Symptoms include:

  • A lump in the neck – can be a fast grower and can be felt through the skin
  • Pain in the neck and throat – can even go up to the ears
  • Swollen neck/lymph nodes
  • Hoarseness or other changes to your voice
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Constant cough (when you are not sick)

While you will see a few causes listed in the risk factor section below (like genetic medical conditions), most cases of thyroid cancer have an unknown cause.

Risk Factors of Thyroid Cancer

What raises your chances of developing thyroid cancer?

1. Gender 

According to the American Cancer Society, women are 3 times more likely to have thyroid cancer than men. They also report that it’s currently unclear why this happens to be the case.

2. Age

Anybody at any age can get thyroid cancer, but there are certain ages where that risk spikes up. Interestingly, it’s different for men and for women.

  • Women are often in their 40s or 50s when diagnosed with thyroid cancer
  • Men are often in their 60s or 70s when diagnosed with thyroid cancer

3. Family History

Thyroid cancer doesn’t actually have a super strong genetic component. While having a relative with thyroid cancer may increase your risk a bit, most people with thyroid cancer do not have family history of the disease.

4. Medical Conditions

While most people who have thyroid cancer don’t have an inherited condition, the following hereditary genetic conditions do in fact increase your odds:

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP): This condition tends to lead to colon cancer, but also increases the risk of thyroid cancer
  • Cowden disease: People with this condition have an increased risk of thyroid problems in general as well as cancers in hormonal areas like the thyroid or uterus
  • Carney complex, type 1: Causes hormone issues and tumors

Radiation exposure is definitely a big risk factor for thyroid cancer. While that exposure may have come from a medical treatment, it can also come from radiation fallout or nuclear weapons. A less common cause for the average person, but a real one nonetheless.

5. Diet

If you do not get enough iodine in your food, you are more likely to get thyroid cancer. In most developed countries, this is not too much of an issue (thanks to iodized salt). Countries without as much access to iodine tend to have this issue more frequently.

Clearly, iodine consumption needs to be balanced though – as we know too much can lead to hyperthyroidism. A simple solution is to get your levels checked.

You Have a Risk Factor – Now What?

If you have noticed any symptoms of a thyroid disease or if you feel like you qualify for a risk factor or two, it’s not a bad idea to have your doctor check out your thyroid. Make it part of your yearly checkup routine.

Blood tests (for hypo- and hyperthyroidism) and ultrasounds or scans (for thyroid cancer) are effective ways to see what’s happening with this small neck gland.

For hypo- and hyperthyroidism, quickly beginning a treatment plan can greatly improve your quality of life. For thyroid cancer, early detection can be a lifesaver. Pay attention.