This Health Issue Can Hint at Dementia Years in Advance

Woman with pain in her hand
Photo by Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock.com

Chronic pain can be a sign of emerging dementia up to 16 years before the brain disease itself is diagnosed, according to findings published in the journal Pain.

While it is known that many people diagnosed with dementia also experience chronic pain, it has been unclear whether chronic pain:

  • Actually causes or accelerates the onset of dementia.
  • Is simply a symptom of dementia.
  • Is merely associated with dementia, with the pain and the dementia caused by some other factor.

So, for the study — funded in part by the National Institute on Aging — researchers at Université de Paris and two other European universities looked at the timeline of the association between dementia and self-reported pain.

Study data reaches as far back as 27 years, making the study the first to examine the connection between pain and dementia over an extended period.

Participants in the study — British government employees — were between the ages of 35 and 55 when they enrolled in the research.

As part of the study, patients were asked to report on two aspects of pain:

  • Pain intensity — how much bodily pain a participant experiences
  • Pain interference — how much pain affects a participant’s daily activities

Of 9,046 participants, 567 developed dementia during the study period, and those diagnosed with dementia reported slightly more pain as early as 16 years before their diagnosis.

Over time, those diagnosed with dementia said they felt steadily increasing pain levels compared with those never diagnosed with dementia.

The relationship between chronic pain and dementia has been a topic for study in recent years. Earlier research has noted that people with chronic pain have permanent changes in the structure of the brain that are similar to those in people with dementia.

The exact relationship between chronic pain and dementia remains unclear, but the 27-year study has given researchers a better sense of what might be behind that association. According to the National Institute on Aging:

“The researchers note that, because the brain changes associated with dementia start decades before diagnosis, it is unlikely that pain causes or increases the risk of dementia. Instead, they suggest that chronic pain might be an early symptom of dementia or simply correlated with dementia.”

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