Pain that continues, day in and day out, may trigger an unexpected and unwanted side effect—a bigger risk of mental decline and dementia, a new study suggests.
The findings suggest that chronic pain may be related to changes in the brain that contribute to memory problems. The findings may also point to new ways to protect age-related mental decline, the University of California, San Francisco researchers said.
However, it’s important to note that the study wasn’t designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship. It can only show an association between pain and memory issues.
The study included information on more than 10,000 people. All of the study participants were 60 and older.
Those who had moderate or severe chronic pain in both 1998 and 2000 had more than a 9 percent faster decline on memory tests over the next 10 years than those who didn’t have pain.
The decrease in memory would likely be enough to affect people’s ability to do things such as manage their finances or keep track of their medications, the researchers said.
Patients with chronic pain also had a small but significantly increased risk of developing dementia, the study found.
“Elderly people need to maintain their cognition to stay independent. 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,” study first author Dr. Elizabeth Whitlock, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of anesthesia and perioperative care, said in a UCSF news release.
The study was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.