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East’s Thyroid Condition Common But Easily Treatable, Expert Says

July 1, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ Hypothyroidism, a thyroid gland condition diagnosed in Sen. John East, is one of the most common hormone-related diseases, but treatment is effective in virtually everyone, a thyroid expert says.

Although the condition can cause depression in a minority of patients, too little is known publicly to say whether it played any role in East’s suicide on Sunday, said Dr. Bruce Weintraub, chief of molecular and cellular endocrinology and director of endocrinology training at the National Institutes of Health.

East was hospitalized for the condition early last year. If his case was properly treated and East continued to take pills for it, ″there should be no reason why several months after diagnosis he should not be restored entirely to a normal state,″ Weintraub said Monday.

Hypothyroidism means decreased activity of the thyroid gland, which is located below and to each side of the Adam’s apple. The thyroid’s main job in adults is to regulate the body’s metabolism and energy through hormone secretion.

Usually, hypothyroidism results from a condition in which the body’s immune system goes awry and attacks the gland, Weintraub said. Less frequently, the thyroid itself is abnormal, or it gets too little stimulation from the brain or the pituitary gland, he said.

Some estimates say that 5 percent to 10 percent of all adults in Western countries have at least a very mild form, Weintraub said. Doctors are studying whether a very mild form should be treated, he said.

About 1 percent to 5 percent of the population suffer a severe enough form to cause disabilities, he said. Common symptoms include sluggishness, weight gain, loss of alertness, fatigue and poor attention span. Only a minority of hypothyroidism victims show behavioral changes such as depression, Weintraub said.

The condition can lead to a coma in which the body temperature slips very low. The coma is fatal for some 20 percent to 40 percent of people who enter it, Weintraub said.

But if diagnosed and treated early, the disease can virtually always be brought under control within a few months through pills that replace missing hormone, he said.

Since the thyroid condition itself is unlikely to get better, the patient probably will have to take the pills for the rest of his life, Weintraub said.

One hazard is that if a patient is not conscientious about taking the pills, the condition may flare up, causing loss of alertness and making the patient forget to see the doctor, he said. He recommends that once the disease is brought under control, patients continue to see their doctors yearly.

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