Study links chronic pain to increased risk of dementia

A new study by the University of California San Francisco has found a link between chronic pain and an increased risk of dementia in older adults. Photo by

June 9 (UPI) — Researchers at the University of California San Francisco found in a recent study that older adults with chronic pain are at an increased risk for dementia.

UCSF researchers, in collaboration with UCSF’s Division of Geriatrics, analyzed data from 10,000 participants age 60 and older over a 12-year period.

Participants who reported persistent moderate to severe pain beginning in 1998 and 2000 showed a 9.2 percent faster decline in memory tests over the following 10 years compared to participants who did not report pain.

“Elderly people need to maintain their cognition to stay independent,” Dr. Elizabeth Whitlock, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF’s Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care, said in a press release. “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 found three possible reasons for the increase in dementia risk for adults with chronic pain. These are the increased use of pain medications, such as opioids, taken in greater numbers; the experience of pain may compromise the brain’s ability to encode memories and perform other cognitive functions; or “some other” third factor not measured in the study.

Whitlock said people who have chronic pain have diminished attention capacity and impaired memory, especially when pain is severe or causes patients to divert enough attention to interfere with memory. Emotional stress of dealing with chronic pain may also play a role by activating stress hormone pathways in the body that could cause cognitive decline.

Researchers said pain could be used as a marker for increased risk of future cognitive decline.

“This is something I really feel we can do something about as clinicians,” Whitlock said. “It’s part of taking care of the whole patient.”

The study was published June 5 in JAMA Internal Medicine.


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