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After completing a study that spanned more than a decade, researchers have discovered a link between chronic pain and an increased risk for dementia.
In the population-based study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers interviewed 10,065 people older than 62. They interviewed participants in 1998 and then again in 2000, asking them both times if they were suffering “persistent pain.” They then tracked participants every other year for a period of 12 years, through 2012. Participants who reported persistent pain in both 1998 and 2000 had a 9 percent more rapid decline in memory performance. Additionally, the probability of dementia increased 7.7 percent faster in people who had persistent pain compared with those that had none.
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Lead researcher Elizabeth L. Whitlock, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow and clinical instructor in the Department of Anesthesia & Perioperative Care at the University of California, San Francisco, believes that this means persistent, or chronic, pain may help identify older patients at risk of accelerated cognitive decline. Ultimately, it was her own patients who inspired Whitlock to pursue this theory.
"In my clinical experience, patients complain of cognitive changes when they have severe chronic pain. They don't feel as sharp as they were before the pain," Whitlock says. "I was curious about whether objective cognitive testing would bear that out, and what the change in cognition over time would be in someone with pain."
The study doesn't determine whether chronic pain causes cognitive decline. Rather, it uses participants' reports of pain as a marker and then looks at how their cognition changes over time. "It's plausible that the pain does cause cognitive changes itself, for example, by interfering with memory formation. But it might also be due to the medications people with chronic pain take, or other factors."