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What is hypothyroidism? Elizabeth Warren and many others have it

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recently released a medical report from her doctor that disclosed that she takes medication to treat hypothyroidism.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recently released a medical report from her doctor that disclosed that she takes medication to treat hypothyroidism.Mary Schwalm/FR158029 AP via AP

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren recently released a medical report from her doctor that disclosed that she takes medication to treat hypothyroidism.

An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, according to the American Thyroid Association.

Health has become an issue in the presidential campaign. In October, Senator Bernie Sanders, 78, suffered a heart attack, prompting concern about his ability to run for president. Following Warren’s lead, Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden, 77, have pledged to release their medical records in February.

Metro Minute spoke to Dr. Ronald Lechan, chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Tufts Medical Center, about hypothyroidism and how the condition manifests. (Comments have been edited for length and clarity.)

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What is hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism means that the levels of thyroid hormones in your body, which are essential to life, are running low. You can’t live without the thyroid hormone because it helps maintain normal body temperature and the metabolic function of all cells. I equate it to your ‘home thermostat.’ To feel comfortable, to feel well, you need to keep it around 70 degrees.

What are some symptoms of the condition?

Hypothyroidism is like turning down the thermostat. With the decrease in the release of the thyroid hormone, individuals complain about constipation, fatigue, dry skin, hair loss ... skin begins to swell and there’s an increased sensitivity to the cold. There’s a variety of symptoms reflecting how important the thyroid hormone is for all cells in the body. It can affect any age group, but it is more common in older individuals, particularly women.

How does the condition affect someone’s day-to-day life, especially for someone like Elizabeth Warren, who is currently in a presidential campaign?

It’s very easy to treat hypothyroidism. We have very effective ways of replacing the thyroid hormone because if you just give them T4, the hormone the thyroid largely releases, the body will convert what it needs for T3, the other more potent thyroid hormone. We monitor the levels through a blood test. Of course the normal range varies from person to person, but pretty much you should be able to perfectly replace what individuals need.

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What happens if it goes untreated?

If untreated, there’s the risk of death. Particularly in situations where people get illnesses such as the flu, people can get an infection and go into the state of myxedema coma, a life-threatening disorder where the mortality rate is extremely high. You really can’t live without the thyroid hormone.


Maysoon Khan can be reached at maysoon.khan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maysoonkhann.