Chronic pain associated with dementia, new study finds

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Elizabeth Whitlock, M.D.
Elizabeth Whitlock, M.D.

Chronic pain is correlated with memory decline and dementia later in life, according to a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers found that people who persistently had moderate or severe pain in 1998 and 2000 had memories that declined 9.2% faster over the following 10 years than those who did not have pain. The study also found that people with moderate or severe pain were 2.2% more likely to develop dementia, which was a statistically significant increase.

This is the first study to make this claim, according to a University of California, San Francisco, press release.

Researchers suggested the correlation could be caused by the increased use of painkillers in people with chronic pain or the possibility that pain causes complications with cognitive functions. They also noted that it could be caused by another factor they did not analyze in their study.

The additional amount of memory decline in those who said they had persistent pain suggested that these people would likely have had a more difficult time with instrumental activities of daily living, such as independently managing their medications or finances, according to the authors.

“Elderly people need to maintain their cognition to stay independent,” said Elizabeth Whitlock, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the UCSF Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care and a study author. “Up to one in three older people suffer from chronic pain, so understanding the relationship between pain and cognitive decline is an important first step toward finding ways to help this population.”

Researchers from UCSF analyzed data from about 10,000 people who were aged 60 or more years for this study. The data used were collected through the national Health and Retirement Study.

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