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The ABC's of Thyroid Disorders

--Thyroid disorders affect 13 million Americans. Most of them are women, including Barbara Bush, Tipper Gore and Olympic track star Gail Devers. There are symptoms to the disease but more than half who are affected don't know their thyroid is the problem.

Experts say thyroid problems are among the most under-diagnosed and misdiagnosed problems in the United States. Doctors don't generally examine the thyroid, the illness comes on slowly, and the symptoms can be ambiguous.

Dr. Melissa Katz, endocrinologist at the New York Weill Cornell Center, talked with CBS Saturday Morning to get the basics on thyroid disorders.

The thyroid gland plays a major role in the body, manufacturing key hormones that affect metabolism, growth, nerves, muscles and circulation.

The most common disorder affecting this gland is hypothyroidism, when the gland produces too little hormone and the metabolic rate of the body slows down.

Symptoms include weight gain, exhaustion, constipation, intolerance to cold, dry skin and coarseness or loss of hair. The symptoms manifest themselves depending on the amount of decrease in thyroid hormone and the duration of time that the hormone has decreased. For many patients, the signs can be mild and often confused with other problems.

Doctors treat hypothyroidism by returning thyroid hormone levels to normal. Synthetic hormones are usually prescribed.

The other, less common thyroid disorder is called hyperthyroidism. It occurs when the gland produces too much hormone and the metabolic rate speeds up. Symptoms include weight loss, increased palpitations, tremors and anxiousness.

Hyperthyroidism is treated by giving anti-thyroid medication to patients. Other options include radioactive iodine or surgery to remove the gland. Synthetic hormones are then given to compensate for loss of hormone.

Diagnosis of thyroid problems usually involves an evaluation of symptoms and a simple blood test that's considered very accurate. Family history of the disease, age and smoking are risk factors for the disorder. Those with autoimmune problems have a higher risk.

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