A major European study analyzed questionnaires that consisted of questions like, over the past four weeks have you been exhausted, been tired and had trouble getting inspired to anything, to determine the effectiveness of a widely used drug to treat a slightly underactive thyroid.
In 2015, levothyroxine (Synthroid, among others) topped a list of prescription medications dispensed in the U.S. An estimated 121 million prescriptions are written each year and levothyroxine topped the list, outpacing antihypertensive and statin drugs. A 2015 Johns Hopkins study discovered that 15 percent of older people living in the United States was being prescribed it by their physician.
While, these results should be shocking news, the European researchers reported older people, who had been diagnosed with mild hypothyroidism, levothyroxine had no weighty effect on symptoms, none at all.
“It’s a strong signal that this is an overused medication,” said Dr. Juan Brito, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. “Some people really need this medicine, but not the vast majority of people who are taking it.”
In most cases, physicians order a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test to measure the amount of TSH in the blood, when a patient complains of symptoms that are suggestive of a failing thyroid gland, constipation, fatigue, muscle weakness, cold sensitivity and weight gain. Oftentimes, the physician will order a TSH reading as part of routine blood work.
Overt or true hypothyroidism can cause severe symptoms and if allowed to go untreated, it can lead to mental health issues, heart problems, goiters, peripheral neuropathy, infertility and myxedema, a rare, life-threatening condition. Questions emerge when TSH levels are only a little higher than normal, which may constitute a normal effect of aging. However, millions of older people living in the United States are being prescribed a drug that now seems to be pointless.
A new study led by Dr. David Stott, a geriatrician at the University of Glasgow, conducted with a total of 737 participants over the age of 65 in Switzerland, Netherlands, Ireland and Scotland.
The findings revealed that the drug was effective, lowering TSH levels to what is considered normal. The TSH levels barely budged among a group taking a placebo.
The drug did not bring any improvement to symptoms suggestive of thyroid problems, such as fatigue, weight gain and difficulty concentrating.
“We are tending to medicalize and rush to think we need to treat it,” Stott said.
Hypothyroid symptoms are often nonspecific, vague and experienced by many people over the age of 65.
Thyroid function appears very simple to test for and treat. Explanation for very common symptoms, “primary care doctors like it,” Brito said. “It’s more difficult to talk about your life or your sleep, to find out why you’re tired.”