Chronic Pain May Increase Risk of Dementia in Seniors

Woman wearing robe sitting up in bedSeniors with chronic pain may experience more rapid age-related cognitive decline, increasing the likelihood of developing dementia, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. A 2011 Institute of Medicine report found chronic pain affects 100 million Americans at some point during their lives.

Chronic pain is a complex medical issue, with physiological and psychological components. Previous research has found people with chronic pain are more likely to experience mental health issues. Therapy may help, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people manage negative thoughts.

Chronic Pain: Risk Factor for Dementia?

The study followed 10,065 seniors age 62 and older for 12 years. At the beginning of the study, participants lived in their communities, not in nursing homes or other facilities. In 1998 and 2000, participants answered questions about their cognition and pain levels. People counted among the chronic pain group were those who said they were often troubled by moderate or severe pain in both 1998 and 2000. One in 10 (10.9%) participants had chronic pain.

The chronic pain group experienced cognitive declines 9.2% faster than the group without chronic pain. After 10 years, those with chronic pain were 11.8% more likely to be unable to independently manage their finances. There was also a slight increase (2.2%) in the risk of dementia in this group.

Does Chronic Pain Cause Dementia?

The study did not establish a causal connection between chronic pain and dementia. Researchers are not yet certain why the correlation exists, but the study suggests some possibilities. People with chronic pain generally take more painkillers, including opioids, which could increase the risk of dementia.

Chronic pain might also undermine cognition over time. Some research already points to changes in the brain due to chronic pain. The study’s authors say other factors could also play a role. Regardless of what causes the correlation, they recommend chronic pain should be treated as a risk factor for cognitive decline.


  1. AAPM facts and figures on pain. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  2. Kurtzman, L. (2017, June 5). Chronic pain linked to increased risk of dementia in study of older adults. Retrieved from
  3. Whitlock, E. L., Diaz-Ramirez, L. G., Glymour, M. M., Boscardin, W. J., Covinsky, K. E., & Smith, A. K. (2017). Association between persistent pain and memory decline and dementia in a longitudinal cohort of elders. JAMA Internal Medicine. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.1622

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  • Evan

    June 9th, 2017 at 10:33 AM

    I could definitely see that more drug use and abuse could hasten dementia tendencies in patients for who this is already in their family histories.

  • Paula

    June 12th, 2017 at 2:14 PM

    It is time for us to speak up and speak out against the idea that doctors simply want to medicate us into some state of numbness. I am so tired of hearing that someone got a prescription for this or for that when there are clearly other ways that this issue could be handled or even resolved. But no, people think that they should be able to pop a pill for any little thing that ails them and the medical community has only been too happy to comply. Now we have generations of people who place every bit of faith that they have in the drug companies and not one bit in the restorative power that their own mind or body could bring about.

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