Assessing the cardiovascular effects of levothyroxine use in an ageing United Kingdom population (ACEL-UK) protocol: a cohort and target trial emulation study

Thyroid Res. 2023 Nov 13;16(1):43. doi: 10.1186/s13044-023-00186-0.


Background: Subclinical hypothyroidism is diagnosed when serum thyroid stimulating hormone levels are higher whilst free thyroxine levels remain within their respective reference ranges. These reference ranges are uniformly applied in all adults, despite serum thyroid stimulating hormone levels naturally increasing with age. Research has found that mildly elevated thyroid stimulating hormone levels may be associated with some benefits in ageing patients, including reduced mortality and better cardiorespiratory fitness. Levothyroxine is typically prescribed to patients with hypothyroidism, but no conclusive evidence exists on whether levothyroxine therapy is beneficial or detrimental in older subclinical hypothyroid patients. Despite this, prescriptions for levothyroxine are increasing year-on-year. This study aims to determine if receiving levothyroxine affects the cardiovascular and bone health outcomes of subclinical patients in primary care aged 50 years and over.

Methods: This project includes a retrospective cohort analysis and a target trial emulation study using electronic patient records collected between 2006 and 2021 and recorded in The Health Improvement Network database. The primary outcome of this study is to compare the cardiovascular outcomes of subclinical hypothyroid patients aged over 50 years treated with levothyroxine compared to those untreated. Secondary outcomes are bone health and all-cause mortality outcomes. Descriptive and inferential statistics will both be employed to analyse the data. Secondary analysis will explore confounding factors, including age, sex, smoking status, body mass index, co-morbidities, and levothyroxine dosage.

Discussion: There needs to be a greater understanding of the potential risks of the current treatment for older patients with subclinical hypothyroidism in a primary care setting. We will investigate the clinical importance of this issue and whether older subclinical hypothyroid patients have poorer outcomes when treated. Clarifying this concern may help address the healthcare resource implications of ageing patients being misclassified as having mild hypothyroidism, as these patients are more likely to repeat their blood tests. This could reduce prescription wastage and improve patient outcomes and quality of life in the ageing population.

Trial registration: Not applicable.

Keywords: Aged; Cardiovascular; General practice; Hypothyroidism; Levothyroxine; Osteoporosis; Thyroid stimulating hormone; Thyroxine.