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New study says chronic pain may be an indicator of dementia

Chronic pain in older individuals may be an indicator of changes in the brain that can contribute to dementia, according to a new study.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and published in JAMA Internal Medicine, reveals that older people with continuous pain experience quicker decreases in memory as they age, a possible precursor to dementia.

While aging and pain are not unusual correlating traits, the link between chronic pain and dementia is a new association.

Over the span of 12 years, researchers analyzed data from 10,000 people who were 60 years old and above. People with persistent pain declined faster in memory tests than those who said they were not suffering from chronic pain. Furthermore, patients with chronic pain showed a higher likelihood of developing other dementia symptoms.

Elizabeth Whitlock, MD, MSc, works in the UCSF Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care, and also is an author of the study.

“Elderly people need to maintain their cognition to stay independent,” she said. “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.”

The study determined three potential reasons for the tie between dementia and chronic pain:

1.     The use of painkillers.

2.     The theory that pain alters the brain’s ability to “encode memories.”

3.     Other factors not measured.

The study provides helpful information to our understanding of elder care. While the elderly may be able to still live independently with the proper pain management, it’s vitally important for us to also understand the links between pain and memory loss. This study sheds light on the associations between pain, memory loss and possible dementia diagnosis, affording medical professionals and caregivers new insights and hopefully, better care.

My vision as an innovative dementia care expert is to provide families and professional caregivers with information and practical tips to help them navigate the various challenges that are common when caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or any dementia or memory loss. New information like this allows me and caregivers to better understand this disease.