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Beyond the Pain: How Chronic Pain Could Increase Your Risk of Dementia

a slice of a plastic brain with a white neuron and synapses by its side

A recent study by Dr. TU Yiheng and his research team at the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that chronic pain lasting for over three months, such as arthritis, cancer, or back pain, can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The study revealed that people experiencing chronic pain in multiple parts of their body had a higher risk of dementia and experienced faster cognitive decline, including memory, executive function, learning, and attention.

Exploring the hippocampus

The hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial for learning and memory, aged by approximately one year in a 60-year-old person who experienced chronic pain in one body site compared to someone with no pain. If pain was felt in two places in the body, the hippocampus shrank even more, equivalent to over two years of aging. The risk of cognitive decline and dementia increased as the number of pain sites in the body increased. People experiencing pain in five or more body sites had hippocampal volume that was nearly four times smaller compared to those with only two sites of pain, equivalent to up to eight years of aging.

Chronic pain and memory

Multisite chronic pain, where pain is experienced in multiple anatomical locations, affects almost half of chronic pain patients and places a greater burden on patients' overall health. It has not been clear whether people with multisite chronic pain suffered from aggravated neurocognitive abnormalities. That is to say, we haven’t been sure if people experiencing pain in multiple locations in their body have also experienced negative impacts to their memory and thinking skills. Asking people about any chronic pain conditions and advocating for their care by a pain specialist may be a modifiable risk factor against cognitive decline that can be proactively addressed. Dr. Richard Isaacson, a preventive neurologist at the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases of Florida, who was not involved in the study, suggests that addressing chronic pain may be an effective way to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

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