Chronic Pain Causes Brains to Age More Rapidly

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Poorly treated or untreated chronic pain can lead to a number of other health problems, from high blood pressure and insomnia to depression and anxiety.

Now there is evidence that chronic pain also causes brains to age more rapidly, raising the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological problems associated with aging.

“Our findings highlight the need to address chronic pain, not just in older individuals but in potentially everyone, as pain may have unintended consequences in the brain that we don’t yet fully understand,” said lead author Yenisel Cruz-Almeida, PhD, a researcher at the University of Florida Institute on Aging.


Over a three-year period, Cruz-Almeida and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the volume of gray and white matter in the brains of 47 older adults, ages 60 to 83.  The volunteers were free of neurological disorders and in generally good health, although 33 of them had some type of chronic pain.

Volunteers who did not have chronic pain had brains that appeared four years younger than their actual age.

Chronic pain sufferers had brains that appeared an average of two years older. They were also more likely to have greater pain intensity, have a “less agreeable personality” and be less emotionally stable, according to researchers.

The University of Florida produced this video on the study, which was recently published online in the journal Pain.

“Not everybody ages the same way,” said Cruz-Almeida. “I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, I have chronic pain. I’m doomed.’ This is not the case. That is not the message we want to get out. There is more nuance than that.”

Interestingly, the volunteers who reported getting pain treatment in the last three months had younger-appearing brains compared to those that did not, suggesting that pain relief slows brain aging. Pain sufferers who had a happier outlook on life and were generally more upbeat also had younger-appearing brains.

“The pain experience is not just in your brain,” said Cruz-Almeida. “There appear to be avenues or things that could be done to change brain age.

“Our findings also suggest that both pain treatments and psychological traits may significantly mitigate the effect of pain on the aging brain and could further decrease the risk of age-related deterioration and death.”

Cruz-Almeida is planning additional research with a larger sample of older adults that will look at ways to alleviate accelerated brain aging.

Active Seniors Have Lower Risk of Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Older adults who are physically active are better able to block pain signals and may have a lower risk of developing chronic pain, according to a small study published in the journal Pain.

Researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis performed a series of experiments on 51 healthy adults, aged 60 to 77, who wore monitoring devices for one week to measure their physical activity. Participants were given heat and pressure tests to measure their “pain modulation” – how the central nervous system interprets and perceives pain.

Both tests found that pain modulation was significantly related to physical activity. Older adults with more frequent moderate-to-vigorous physical activity had lower pain scores, while those who were sedentary were less able to block pain signals. Even light physical activity appeared to lower pain perception.

"This study provides the first objective evidence suggesting that physical activity behavior is related to the functioning of the endogenous pain modulatory systems in older adults," wrote lead author Kelly Naugle, PhD, of the Center for Physical Activity in Wellness and Prevention, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

"Our data suggest that low levels of sedentary behavior and greater light physical activity may be critical in maintaining effective endogenous pain inhibitory function in older adults."

Previous studies have shown that pain modulation is poor in patients with chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, back pain and fibromyalgia.

Aging is associated with chronic low-grade inflammation and oxidative stress, which could make the peripheral and central nervous systems more sensitive to pain. Older adults are also more likely to be sedentary and less physically active, which would make them more vulnerable to chronic pain.

Recent studies have documented the benefits of exercise for older adults. Chair yoga reduced pain and improved the quality of life in older adults with osteoarthritis. Another study found that just 45 minutes of moderate exercise a week improved function and reduced pain levels.  

Power of Pain: Growing Older with Chronic Pain

Barby Ingle, Columnist

I am another year older. At 43, I should be in my prime, but I live with chronic pain. Chances are I passed my peak health on the proverbial mountain and am headed back down when it comes to my health.

My friends are getting older as well. I hear more complaints about painful knees and hips, backs, and breathing difficulties. Those are common symptoms among older adults, with about 30% of adults 65 and older reporting knee pain or stiffness and 15% reporting hip pain or stiffness.

There has to be a way to lessen the blow of growing old, even for those of us with chronic pain. Although they are not taught well in society, there are actually life choices we can make that will lessen the pain and limitations.

Where should we start? Exercise is a good place, but don’t overdo it. Good eating habits are essential, but remember to splurge a couple of times a month. Increase your water consumption too, unless advised by a healthcare provider to limit fluids. Another challenge for me and probably you is getting enough sleep.

There has to be a way to lessen the blow of growing old, even for those of us with chronic pain. Although they are not taught well in society, there are actually life choices we can make that will lessen the pain and limitations.

Where should we start? Exercise is a good place, but don’t overdo it. Good eating habits are essential, but remember to splurge a couple of times a month. Increase your water consumption too, unless advised by a healthcare provider to limit fluids. Another challenge for me and probably you is getting enough sleep.

Posture is another area. When we are young we see the elderly hunched over. When we are in pain we tend to do the same tuck and comfort position. If you pay attention to your posture, it will be a great benefit to staying upright and breathing deeper, providing more oxygen and helping maintain a healthy body weight.

Living with all of this in mind is difficult, but important. The goal should not only be to live a long, happy and productive life, but do it well. Moments of prevention, especially in our youth and young adulthood, can add up to additional life experiences that you would have missed. Work on your strength (physical and mental), moderate your lifestyle, and practice balance, endurance and flexibility skills.  

I have to remind myself to take a break. Even if I can’t sleep, I go into a quiet dark area and let my brain have a break from all of the stimuli in our environment. Living with pain is a pain in itself, but luckily for us there are safe and effective ways to manage it. It is important to learn what is available and what we need to make available for better daily living.

Aches and pains are NOT a normal part of aging. If we learn how to recognize our bad behaviors and practice better ones, we can overcome many of the battles of growing older with chronic pain. Learn how to recognize, understand and properly treat your pain.

This takes a little work to get started, but once it becomes habit, it gets easier and easier. Be sure to use the resources available to you: providers (develop a team), pharmacists, caregivers, positive people, local churches and community centers. One of the things we did for my mother before she passed was get local high school kids to come in and check on her, and help her with tasks that needed done around her house. Many high schools now have mandatory volunteer hours for graduation. Check your local resources, support groups, and community groups for tools you can use to better your life.

When pain lasts for more than a few months it usually has an underlying disease that is the cause. For the elderly, two widespread causes are diabetes and arthritis. Both can be warded off with proper care throughout the life cycle. If you find yourself already in pain while reading this, it’s never too late to start. It is important to pay attention and admit that you are feeling bad. The sooner you take care of yourself the better your outcomes will be over time.

Working on the core lifestyle actions; posture, nutrition, good behaviors (limited or no smoking/drinking), and exercise will go a long way when it comes to prevention and maintenance of your body.

Also take into consideration what treatments you are willing to participate in. Doing noninvasive treatments first, unless in an acute health situation, is important. The less stress and trauma you bring to yourself the better off you will be. Some noninvasive options would be warm baths, relaxation, moderate physical activity, or non-prescription pain relievers.

Always let your providers know if you have a change in the pain’s location, intensity, and sensation. Be sure to rule out any other underlying causes. Providers may also try medications, herbal or supplemental products, medicated lotions, acupuncture/pressure, chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, occupational therapy, nerve blocks, radio frequency ablations, and other surgical procedures. As a pain patient I have learned that we are all different, what works for me doesn’t always work for my best friend, or even family members who suffer with chronic pain.

I will leave you with some important pain facts for the elderly. If a person has pain, even at the end of life, there are ways to help. It’s best to focus on making the person comfortable, without worrying about possible addiction or drug dependence.

Many older people have been told not to talk about their aches and pains because it is a part of getting older. But it is not a given that since we are getting old we will have pain.  Don’t put off going to see a doctor because you think the pain is just part of life. Early and proper care is best when working to address the pain and its cause.

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the Power of Pain Foundation and the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.