Thyroid disorders are incredibly taxing on one’s health and can be difficult to manage if not properly diagnosed and treated. Many times, if left untreated or improperly treated, it can lead to other, more severe conditions, even neurodegenerative diseases.
Alzheimer’s Disease is a sinister condition that attacks one’s brain, leaving the patient to suffer through a long-lasting and hopeless decline in health. Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment available that can cure, delay, or relieve the pain of Alzheimer’s. Medical developments and research have led to a reduced death rate for most major illnesses except for Alzheimer’s. In part this is due to not fully understanding the disease. With an estimated 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s, greater understanding of this condition is critical to improve the quality of life for many.
Alzheimer’s Disease is a neurodegenerative illness that causes memory issues, erratic behaviors, and loss of bodily functions. In the United States, this condition is the sixth-leading cause of mortality. Although, the true threat of this disease is not the fact that it is a leading cause of death, but that it is incurable.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease frequently occur 10-20 years after the disease has already caused irreparable damage to the brain. This means that even if the condition is recognized early, it is likely that it has already left a wake of damaged nerve cells and brain tissue. At this point, there is very little that can be done to combat it. As the disease progresses, the brain continues to shrink and decline in functionality causing a loss of nearly all bodily functions. During this period, one may exhibit the following symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease:
- Difficulty planning
- Reduced ability to solve problems
- Abnormal difficulty speaking or writing words
- Poor judgment
- Reduced ability to ascertain the time or location
- Shifts in personality and mood
- Memory loss
- Inability to complete daily tasks
- Difficulty discerning visual-spatial relationships
- Greater frequency of misplacing items and being unable to find them
- Reclusive, no longer finding joy in previously engaging activities
Present treatment options for Alzheimer’s provide minimal hope. The sole reprieve are FDA-approved drugs that merely provide temporary postponement of worsening symptoms for 6 to 12 months. Furthermore, these medications are effective in only about 50% of patients. Because treatment is nearly non-existent it is critical to take preventative measures against this dreadful disease. Recent research has found that in addition to impacting numerous areas of the body, the thyroid may play a role in the medical puzzle that is Alzheimer’s Disease.
The Thyroid and Its Impact on Alzheimer’s
The thyroid influences numerous bodily functions including metabolism. Importantly, it also affects the brain, which is clearly seen in symptoms of thyroid disease in the form of reduced cognitive function, poor memory, and general difficulty thinking clearly. This association may have prompted researchers to examine the correlation between the thyroid and neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s.
Uncovering the Link
The well-known Framingham Study is an extensive long-term research project that has observed participants since 1948. The subjects involved are evaluated biennially for cardiovascular risk factors in addition to other data such as thyroid function. Participants are regularly tested for dementia with the use of a Mini-Mental Status Examination or MMSE. This exam consists of 30 questions designed to measure cognitive function. Thanks to this long-term collection of data, researchers have been able to compare TSH serum levels to the occurrence of Alzheimer’s in the study participants.
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, titled “Thyroid Function and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: The Framingham Study,” presented information that provides a possible connection between thyroid function and the occurrence of Alzheimer’s. The study showed that women whose TSH levels fell below 1.0 and women whose TSH was above 2.1 were more than two times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Findings were further reinforced with additional data. During the nearly three year-period of observation, 209 of the 1,864 participants developed Alzheimer’s. Regardless if these participants were actively taking thyroid medication, the data pertaining to TSH ranges and occurrence of Alzheimer’s remained constant. This is not conclusive data that undisputedly correlates thyroid function with Alzheimer’s but it provides a promising trajectory for further research.
Although this data is purely observational and should be validated with other test populations before medical conclusions are made, it has promoted the discussion of links between the thyroid and Alzheimer’s. It is hypothesized that because the thyroid regulates Amyloid Precursor Protein (APP), a gene that may promote the development of Alzheimer’s, one’s thyroid function may have a direct influence over their risk of developing this neurodegenerative condition. A malfunctioning thyroid leading to notably high or low levels of TSH may lead to ineffective regulation of APP and therefore increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
Appropriate Thyroid Ranges
There is significant debate revolving around appropriate TSH ranges regarding thyroid health. In standard practice, the current range of what is considered “normal” is a TSH between 0.5 to 5.0. In some cases, doctors will only treat their patient’s after their levels have breached the 10.0 mark. Attempts have been made by the Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) to tighten the range of “normal” TSH to be between 0.3 and 3.0. Unfortunately, other powers are at play that have prevented this suggestion from being widely accepted. If the data provided by the Framingham study is any indicator of what is considered safe, then medical practices regarding the thyroid must be changed.
Keep an Eye on Your Thyroid
Although TSH levels were the method used to gauge thyroid function in the above studies, it is important not to base individual thyroid function solely on this value. It is best to have a comprehensive understanding of one’s thyroid function including testing for TSH, T4, T3, Reverse T3, and thyroid antibodies. However, with this recent data, it appears that TSH may play a more important role in one’s health if it acts as an early signifier of Alzheimer’s.