Chronic pain may be linked to an increasing risk for dementia.
Researchers interviewed 10,065 people over 62 in 1998 and 2000, asking whether they suffered “persistent pain,” defined as being often troubled with moderate or severe pain. Then they tracked their health through 2012.
After adjusting for many variables, they found that compared with those who reported no pain problems, people who reported persistent pain in both 1998 and 2000 had a 9 percent more rapid decline in memory performance. Moreover, the probability of dementia increased 7.7 percent faster in those with persistent pain compared with those without.
The study, in JAMA Internal Medicine, does not prove cause and effect. But chronic pain may divert attention from other mental activity, leading to poor memory, and some studies have found that allaying pain with opioids can lead to cognitive improvements.
Still, the lead author, Dr. Elizabeth L. Whitlock, an anesthesiologist at the University of California at San Francisco, acknowledged that treatment with opioids is problematic, and that safely controlling chronic pain is a problem that so far has no satisfactory solution.
“I’d encourage clinicians to be aware of the cognitive implications of a simple report of pain,” she said. “It’s a simple question to ask, and the answer can be used to identify a population at high risk of functional and cognitive problems.”