Thyroid hormone plays a pivotal role in human metabolism. In epidemiologic studies, adequate registration of thyroid disorders is warranted. We examined the prevalence of thyroid disorders, reported thyroid medication use, thyroid hormone levels, and validity of thyroid data obtained from questionnaires in the Lifelines Cohort Study.
We evaluated baseline data of all 152180 subjects (aged 18-93 years) of the Lifelines Cohort Study. At baseline, participants were asked about previous thyroid surgery and current and previous thyroid hormone use. At follow-up (n = 136776, after median 43 months), incident thyroid disorders could be reported in an open, non-structured question. Data on baseline thyroid hormone measurements (TSH, FT4 and FT3) were available in a subset of 39935 participants.
Of the 152180 participants, mean (+/- SD) age was 44.6 +/- 13.1 years and 58.5% were female. Thyroid medication was used by 4790 participants (3.1%); the majority (98.2%) used levothyroxine, and 88% were females. 59.3% of levothyroxine users had normal TSH levels. The prevalence of abnormal TSH levels in those not using thyroid medication was 10.8%; 9.4% had a mildly elevated (4.01-10.0 mIU/L), 0.7% had suppressed (10.0 mIU/L) TSH levels. Over 98% of subjects with TSH between 4 and 10 mIU/L had normal FT4. Open text questions allowing to report previous thyroid surgery and incident thyroid disorders proved not to be reliable and severely underestimated the true incidence and prevalence of thyroid disorders.
Undetected thyroid disorders were prevalent in the general population, whereas the prevalence of thyroid medication use was 3.1%. Less than 60% of individuals using levothyroxine had a normal TSH level. The large group of individuals with subclinical hypothyroidism (9.4%) offers an excellent possibility to prospectively follow the natural course of this disorder. Both structured questions as well as linking to G.P.'s and pharmacists' data are necessary to improve the completeness and reliability of Lifelines' data on thyroid disorders.
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