Your endocrine system
Catch problems early to stay healthyBy Lisa M. Davila
You’re familiar with how aging affects various body organs such as the brain, heart, and kidneys. But what about the main parts of your endocrine system—your glands and hormones?
Glands secrete hormones, or chemicals responsible for multiple bodily tasks. “As you age, your risk of developing endocrine disorders increases,” says Asha Thomas, M.D., director of the division of endocrinology and metabolism at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Md. “Symptoms related to endocrine problems can be vague, so a lot could be going on behind the scenes that you may not know about until you’ve developed significant health problems.”
According to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in four adults over age 65 has type 2 diabetes. The main gland involved in the development of diabetes is the pancreas, which secretes the hormone insulin. Either or both of these elements may not be functioning correctly, which results in excess blood glucose.
“A healthy weight; exercise; and a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can go a long way when it comes to preventing diabetes,” Thomas says.
“Diabetes can be responsible for many serious complications,” says Amy Ehrlich, M.D., a geriatrician and associate professor of clinical medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, N.Y. “It takes years to develop, and you are unlikely to have symptoms until the disease has advanced and possibly affected your heart, vascular system, or kidneys.”
Typical diabetes symptoms include frequent urination; excessive hunger or thirst; unusual weight loss; and fatigue. You may also notice frequent infections, blurred vision, or tingling and numbness—especially in your hands and feet.
“Diabetes is very treatable,” Thomas says, “and if it’s not too advanced, you can keep it under control with dietary modifications, weight management, and exercise. If it has progressed you may need medication or insulin.”
The National Osteoporosis Foundation reports that 10 million individuals in the U.S. are estimated to have osteoporosis and almost 34 million more are estimated to have low bone density, which places them at increased risk for osteoporosis and fractures.
The disease affects women significantly more so than men. “With women, bone weakens primarily because of the decrease in the hormone estrogen during menopause,” Thomas says. “In fact, the most significant amount of bone loss occurs in the first two years after menopause.”
“With men, a decrease in the hormone testosterone is partially responsible for the disease, but bone weakening tends to occur later in life,” Thomas adds.
“There are no symptoms of osteoporosis, so you may not know about it until you’ve had a fracture,” Ehrlich explains.
“Knowing your risk of the disease is crucial to early management,” Ehrlich adds. “Risk factors for osteoporosis include having a small frame, being Caucasian, having a first-degree relative with the disease, and smoking.”
“Having a bone density test is the best way to know what kind of fracture prevention measures you need to take,” Thomas says. “Your risk of a fracture increases each decade.”
The thyroid gland secretes two essential hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These help regulate your metabolism, or how your body processes food to get energy. If your thyroid gland malfunctions, your body uses energy more slowly (hypothyroidism) or quickly (hyperthyroidism) than it should.
“As with diabetes and osteoporosis, you may have no symptoms until the disease is advanced,” Thomas says. “Hypothyroidism symptoms tend to be vague and include fatigue, weight gain, and intolerance to cold temperatures.”
“Hypothyroidism can have many causes,” Ehrlich says. “But it is frequently related to the immune system attacking the thyroid gland.”
According to the National Endocrine and Metabolic Disease Information Service, other causes include thyroid gland inflammation, surgery, radiation, certain medications, too little iodine in the diet, or abnormalities of the pituitary gland.
When it comes to thyroid disease, there’s not much you can do to prevent it. “But treatment is easy, safe, and effective with a once-a-day medication that replaces your thyroid hormones,” Thomas says.