Chronic Pain Accelerates Dementia

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

In 2017, JAMA Internal Medicine published a study that found older people with chronic pain experience faster declines in memory and are more likely to develop dementia.  While prior research had shown a link between chronic pain and brain damage, this was one of the first studies to specifically suggest that chronic pain can cause dementia.

The authors reported that people aged 60 and over with persistent pain experienced a 9.2% more rapid decline in memory score when compared to people of the same age without chronic pain. This means that people with chronic pain may experience more difficulty in managing their finances, medications and social connections.

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Dementia is a chronic condition of the brain that involves memory, personality and judgment. It is not a disease; it is a symptom of one or more diseases.

There are many types of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is considered to be the most common.

Dementia usually worsens over time if the underlying disease remains static or progresses, as is the case with many chronic pain conditions.

There are an estimated 20 million Americans with high impact (the most severe) chronic pain who may be experiencing accelerated decline in cognition due to their pain. The amount of dementia appears to be associated with the severity and duration of chronic pain. Undertreated or untreated chronic pain may accelerate dementia.

Chronic pain affects an even larger percentage of elderly adults (one in three) than the general population. Since the prevalence of chronic pain increases with age, the probability of experiencing dementia increases as well. However, the reasons for that go beyond aging itself.

Seniors are more likely to take multiple medications that can contribute to mental confusion. On average, elderly people take five or more prescriptions. They may also use over-the-counter medications, which adds to potential drug-associated mental compromise.

Opioids, in particular, have been implicated in cognitive impairment. However, a study published in 2016 suggests there is no difference in cognitive decline between people on opioids and those on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The study's implication is that pain, not opioids, leads to cognitive impairment.

Brain Fog

Chronic pain appears to affect the function and structure of the hippocampus. This is the region of the brain that involves learning, memory, and emotional processing.

One explanation for the mental decline associated with chronic pain is that various areas of the brain compete for attention. Attentional impairment compromises memory by diverting attention to the areas of the brain processing pain. In effect, the brain is multi-tasking and favoring the processing of pain over cognition. This may, in part, explain the clinical phrase “brain fog.”

The Australian Broadcasting Company's "All in the Mind" website explains that pain damages the brain in several ways, including a change in the size of the thalamus and a decrease in the amount of a neurotransmitter (gamma-aminobutyric acid) the brain produces. In other words, chronic pain changes the brain structurally and functionally.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as cognition, social behavior, personality, and decision-making. It is also the part of the brain that modulates pain.

According to "All in the Mind," some researchers believe that chronic pain decreases the volume of the prefrontal cortex. Over time, brains damaged by pain lose the ability to handle pain — along with some of the personality attributes that make us who we are.

Brain Damage Can Be Reversed

The good news is that the brain damage caused by chronic pain can be reversed, at least to some extent. Unfortunately, the elderly are less likely to recover from dementia caused by chronic pain as compared with younger patients.

If pain is adequately treated, the brain may be able to regain its ability to function normally. A 2009 study of patients with chronic pain due to hip osteoarthritis showed reversal of brain changes when their pain was adequately treated. 

People who don’t have their acute pain managed are more likely to develop chronic pain. It is postulated that the changes in the brain that occur with chronic pain begin with the onset of acute pain. There is also some evidence that an individual’s genes may influence who is at greatest risk for developing brain damage from chronic pain and who is least likely to recover from it. 

Many people have criticized the concept of assessing pain as the 5th vital sign, and have called it a contributing factor for the opioid crisis. As I have said, pain may not be a vital sign, but it is vital that we assess it. Asking patients about their pain is critical to providing interventions that can mitigate the consequences of undertreated pain, including dementia. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

The information in this column 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.

Common Meds Can Cause Cognition Problems in Seniors

By Judith Graham, Kaiser Health News

By all accounts the woman, in her late 60s, appeared to have severe dementia. She was largely incoherent. Her short-term memory was terrible. She couldn’t focus on questions that medical professionals asked her.

But Dr. Malaz Boustani, a professor of aging research at Indiana University School of Medicine, suspected something else might be going on. The patient was taking Benadryl for seasonal allergies, another antihistamine for itching, Seroquel (an antipsychotic medication) for mood fluctuations, as well as medications for urinary incontinence and gastrointestinal upset.

To various degrees, each of these drugs blocks an important chemical messenger in the brain, acetylcholine. Boustani thought the cumulative impact might be causing the woman’s cognitive difficulties.

He was right. Over six months, Boustani and a pharmacist took the patient off those medications and substituted alternative treatments. Miraculously, she appeared to recover completely. Her initial score on the Mini-Mental State Exam had been 11 of 30 — signifying severe dementia — and it shot up to 28, in the normal range.

An estimated 1 in 4 older adults take anticholinergic drugs — a wide-ranging class of medications used to treat allergies, insomnia, leaky bladders, diarrhea, dizziness, motion sickness, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and various psychiatric disorders.

Older adults are highly susceptible to negative responses to these medications. Since 2012, anticholinergics have been featured prominently on the American Geriatrics Society Beers Criteria list of medications that are potentially inappropriate for seniors.

“The drugs that I’m most worried about in my clinic, when I need to think about what might be contributing to older patients’ memory loss or cognitive changes, are the anticholinergics,” said Dr. Rosemary Laird, a geriatrician and medical director of the Maturing Minds Clinic at AdventHealth in Winter Park, Fla.

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Here’s what older adults should know about these drugs:

The Basics

Anticholinergic medications target acetylcholine, an important chemical messenger in the parasympathetic nervous system that dilates blood vessels and regulates muscle contractions, bodily secretions and heart rate, among other functions. In the brain, acetylcholine plays a key role in attention, concentration, and memory formation and consolidation.

Some medications have strong anticholinergic properties, others less so. Among prescription medicines with strong effects are antidepressants such as imipramine (brand name Trofanil), antihistamines such as hydroxyzine (Vistaril and Atarax), antipsychotics such as clozapine (Clozaril and FazaClo), antispasmodics such as dicyclomine (Bentyl) and drugs for urinary incontinence such as tolterodine (Detrol).

In addition to prescription medications, many common over-the-counter drugs have anticholinergic properties, including antihistamines such as Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton and sleep aids such as Tylenol PM, Aleve PM and Nytol.

Common side effects include dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, disorientation, agitation, blurry vision, dry mouth, constipation, difficulty urinating and delirium, a sudden and acute change in consciousness.

Unfortunately, “physicians often attribute anticholinergic symptoms in elderly people to aging or age-related illness rather than the effects of drugs,” according to a research review by physicians at the Medical University of South Carolina and in Britain.

Seniors are more susceptible to adverse effects from these medications for several reasons: Their brains process acetylcholine less efficiently. The medications are more likely to cross the blood-brain barrier. And their bodies take longer to break down these drugs.

Long-Term Effects

In the late 1970s, researchers discovered that deficits in an enzyme that synthesizes acetylcholine were present in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. “That put geriatricians and neurologists on alert, and the word went out: Don’t put older adults, especially those with cognitive dysfunction, on drugs with acetylcholine-blocking effects,” said Dr. Steven DeKosky, deputy director of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida.

Still, experts thought that the effects of anticholinergics were short-term and that if older patients stopped taking them, “that’s it — everything goes back to normal,” Boustani said.

Concerns mounted in the mid-2000s when researchers picked up signals that anticholinergic drugs could have a long-term effect, possibly leading to the death of brain neurons and the accumulation of plaques and tangles associated with neurodegeneration.

Since then several studies have noted an association between anticholinergics and a heightened risk of dementia. In late June, this risk was highlighted in a new report in JAMA Internal Medicine that examined more than 284,000 adults age 55 and older in Britain between 2004 and 2016.

The study found that more than half of these subjects had been prescribed at least one of 56 anticholinergic drugs. (Multiple prescriptions of these drugs were common as well.) People who took a daily dose of a strong anticholinergic for three years had a 49% increased risk of dementia. Effects were most pronounced for people who took anticholinergic antidepressants, antipsychotics, antiepileptic drugs and bladder control medications.

These findings don’t constitute proof that anticholinergic drugs cause dementia; they show only an association. But based on this study and earlier research, Boustani said, it now appears older adults who take strong anticholinergic medications for one to three years are vulnerable to long-term side effects.

Preventing Harm

Attention is now turning to how best to wean older adults off anticholinergics, and whether doing so might improve cognition or prevent dementia.

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Researchers at Indiana University’s School of Medicine hope to answer these questions in two new studies, starting this fall, supported by $6.8 million in funding from the National Institute on Aging.

One will enroll 344 older adults who are taking anticholinergics and whose cognition is mildly impaired. A pharmacist will work with these patients and their physicians to take them off the medications, and patients’ cognition will be assessed every six months for two years.

The goal is to see whether patients’ brains “get better,” said Noll Campbell, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Regenstrief Institute and an assistant professor at Purdue University’s College of Pharmacy. If so, that would constitute evidence that anticholinergic drugs cause cognitive decline.

The second trial, involving 700 older adults, will examine whether an app that educates seniors about potential harms associated with anticholinergic medications and assigns a personalized risk score for dementia induces people to initiate conversations with physicians about getting off these drugs.

Moving patients off anticholinergic drugs requires “slow tapering down of medications” over three to six months, at a minimum, according to Nagham Ailabouni, a geriatric pharmacist at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy. In most cases, good treatment alternatives are available.

Advice for Older Adults

Seniors concerned about taking anticholinergic drugs “need to approach their primary care physician and talk about the risks versus the benefits of taking these medications,” said Shellina Scheiner, an assistant professor and clinical geriatric pharmacist at the University of Minnesota.

Don’t try stopping cold turkey or on your own. “People can become dependent on these drugs and experience withdrawal side effects such as agitation, dizziness, confusion and jitteriness,” Ailabouni said. “This can be managed, but you need to work with a medical provider.”

Also, “don’t make the assumption that if [a] drug is available over the counter that it’s automatically safe for your brain,” Boustani said. In general, he advises older adults to ask physicians about how all the medications they’re taking could affect their brain.

Finally, doctors should “not give anticholinergic medications to people with any type of dementia,” DeKosky said. “This will not only interfere with their memory but is likely to make them confused and interfere with their functioning.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

The Consequences of Untreated Pain

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Pain is an alarm signal requiring attention. Whether the pain lasts minutes or months, it demands a response. To ignore pain is to invite serious consequences, from burned skin or an infected wound to a damaged joint or dysfunctional nerve. It is for this reason that healthcare professionals ask patients where it hurts.

Recent research found the consequences of untreated pain go farther and deeper than are generally recognized:

  • JAMA Internal Medicine reported that older people with chronic pain experience faster declines in memory and are more likely to develop dementia.
  • Pain Medicine reported that osteoarthritis and related joint pain were strongly associated with memory loss.
  • Arthritis Care & Research reported that pain severe enough to interfere with daily life was associated with an increased risk of mortality.

In the latter study, people who were “often troubled with pain” had a 29% increased risk of dying, and those who reported “quite a bit” or “extreme’ pain” had 38% and 88% increased risk of mortality, according to Medical Dialogues.

These results are new, but they are far from unique. For years researchers have been finding that chronic pain conditions have major long-term medical consequences.

In 2011, Pain Medicine reported that chronic pain “negatively impacts multiple aspects of patient health, including sleep, cognitive processes and brain function, mood/mental health, cardiovascular health, sexual function, and overall quality of life.”

In 2016, a study in the Journal of Pain Research reviewed the research literature and found that chronic pain “has significant consequences for patients, as well as for their families, and their social and professional environment, causing deterioration in the quality of life of patients and those close to them.”

However, awareness of the consequences of persistent pain conditions does not necessarily translate to effective care. As I wrote in a recent column, under treatment of pain is common, and the CDC opioid prescribing guidelines and groups like Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) are making things worse by demonizing opioids.

“The role of opioid analgesics has been distorted to the point where the word ‘oxycodone’ uttered in front of a patient in my palliative medicine clinic is met with raised eyebrows,” wrote Susan Glod, MD, in a recent op/ed on “The Other Victims of the Opioid Epidemic” published in The New England Journal of Medicine

Fear of a drug makes for bad medicine. Although opioid therapy includes possible cognitive side effects, so do anticholinergic muscle relaxants, which have been shown to increase the risk of dementia. Similar risks exist for many other treatment modalities.

Thus, effective management of chronic pain conditions requires expert care. The best results are often obtained in pain management programs that combine drug therapy with physical therapy or other modalities tailored to the individual patient’s needs.

Persistent pain is a danger sign that a major and potentially life-threatening toll is being exacted on the human body and mind. We do not have the luxury of ignoring or undertreating chronic pain conditions. Good pain management is one of the best ways to improve long-term outcomes and quality of life.

Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

Chronic Pain Raises Risk of Dementia

By Pat Anson, Editor

Chronic pain has long been associated with a variety of health problems, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and an impaired immune system. Now there’s something else to worry about.

A large new study by researchers at UC San Francisco has found that older people with chronic pain experience faster declines in memory and are more likely to develop dementia, an indication that chronic pain could cause changes in the brain. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, appears to be the first to make this association.

UCSF researchers analyzed data from over 10,000 participants aged 60 and over who were enrolled an ongoing national study of older Americans. Patients were surveyed about their pain and cognition in 1998 and 2000.

Those who said they were persistently troubled by moderate or severe pain declined 9.2 percent faster in tests of their memory and cognitive ability over the next 10 years than those who said they were not troubled by pain.

The patients who complained about persistent pain also had a 7.7 percent greater chance of developing dementia.

“A persistent report of moderate to severe pain, which may reflect chronic pain, is associated with accelerated cognitive decline and increased dementia probability in a large population-representative data set of elders,” wrote first author Elizabeth Whitlock, MD, a postdoctoral fellow in the UCSF Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care.

“Clinicians should be aware of this association, which persisted after extensive statistical adjustment for confounding health and demographic factors. Patients reporting ongoing pain may be at higher risk for current and incident cognitive impairment and physical debility.”

Whitlock says the additional loss of memory in participants who reported persistent pain suggests that they will have a harder time with daily living tasks, such as managing their medications and finances.

"Elderly people need to maintain their cognition to stay independent," she said. "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 data that the researchers analyzed did not include information about opioid use, so researchers could not tell which of their participants were taking opioid painkillers. While opioid use could be the cause of the cognitive changes, so could the pain itself. For example, a recent study of chronic pain sufferers found that those who took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) had nearly the same increased dementia risk as those taking opioids.

"This means we have to consider the potential direct effects of chronic pain on cognition," Whitlock said.

People who suffer from chronic pain tend to have diminished attention and impaired memory, and Whitlock says when pain is severe it could divert enough attention to interfere with the consolidation of memory. Another possibility is that the emotional stress of being in pain activates stress-hormone pathways in the body that have been implicated in cognitive decline. If either is the case, she said, then effectively treating the pain could protect cognition.

"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."

Benzos May Increase Dementia Risk

By Pat Anson, Editor

Anti-anxiety drugs often prescribed to chronic pain patients increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease when used long term, according to clinicians with the American College of Osteopathic Neurologists and Psychiatrists.

Benzodiazepines --  also known as benzos -- include brand name prescription drugs such as Valium, Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax. They were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat psychiatric conditions, but are also prescribed "off label" to treat bipolar disorder, insomnia, post traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain.

A Canadian study of 9,000 patients found those who had taken a benzodiazepine for three months or less had about the same dementia risk as those who had never taken one.

But taking benzos for three to six months raised the risk of developing Alzheimer's by 32 percent, and taking them for more than six months boosted the risk by 84 percent.

Similar results were found by French researchers studying more than 1,000 elderly patients.

"Current research is extremely clear and physicians need to partner with their patients to move them into therapies, like anti-depressants, that are proven to be safer and more effective," saidHelene Alphonso, DO, Director of Osteopathic Medical Education at North Texas University Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

The case for limiting the use of benzodiazepines is particularly strong for patients 65 and older, who are more susceptible to falls, injuries, accidental overdose and death when taking the drugs. The American Geriatric Society in 2012 labeled the drugs "inappropriate" for treating insomnia, agitation or delirium because of those risks.

"It's imperative to transition older patients because we're seeing a very strong correlation between use of benzodiazepines and development of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. While correlation certainly isn't causation, there's ample reason to avoid this class of drugs as a first-line therapy," said Alphonso.

In its draft guidelines for the prescribing of opioid pain medication, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that opioids and benzodiazepines not be prescribed concurrently whenever possible. A CDC study found that about 80% of unintentional overdose deaths associated with opioids also involved benzodiazepines. Nearly 6,500 people died from overdoses involving benzodiazepines in 2010.

Opioids, benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants are all central nervous system depressants. Mixing the drugs is potentially dangerous because their interaction can slow breathing and raise the risk of an overdose death.

In a study of over 35,000 patient visits for acute and chronic pain, recently published in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety,  researchers found that the prescribing of benzodiazepines was three to four times more likely when opioids were also prescribed.

Over a third of the patients prescribed opioids for chronic musculoskeletal pain were given a sedative. And patients with a history of psychiatric and substance abuse disorders were even more likely to be co-prescribed opioids and sedatives.

"Multi drug use is the trailing edge of the opioid epidemic," said Mark Sullivan, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "We are making progress on decreasing opioid prescribing, but co-prescribing of opioids and sedatives has not decreased.

"Patients who are on long-term combined opioid and benzodiazepine therapy are often on a treadmill. They feel relief when they take their medications and withdrawal when they stop, so they continue this combined therapy, even though many function poorly and some will die as a result."

Over 50,000 visits to emergency rooms in 2011 involved a combination of benzodiazepines and opioids, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)