Newly conducted research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS) has concluded that chronic pain that lasts for three months or longer could lead to a decline in brain function. This means that the critical thinking area of the brain, the hippocampus, would be rendered weakened and ineffective. The endpoint of this is the slow, wracking problem of dementia. PNAS discovered that a single site of pain in a 60-year-old was enough to age the brain by a year.
The study analyzed data from over 19,000 people who had undergone brain scans as part of the U.K. Biobank, a long-term government study of 500,000 participants between the ages of 40 and 59. People with multiple sites of body pain performed worse than people with no pain on seven of 11 cognitive tasks. Dr. Richard Isaacson, a preventive neurologist at the Institute of Neurodegenerative Diseases of Florida, pointed out that while the study controlled for many contributory factors such as age, alcohol use, body mass, and smoking, the researchers did not include exercise.
Further research revealed that chronic pain in two sites shrank the brain even more, aging the brain tissues by two years. When the pain sites eventually hit five, the study’s results showed the hippocampus shrinking four times smaller than those with two pain sites. This phenomenon is equal to eight years of brain decline.
Brain aging, also known as cognitive aging, is a natural process of decline in cognitive abilities over time. It is a normal part of aging and can begin as early as the late 30s or 40s. As we age, our brains become less efficient at processing information and forming new memories. The effects and symptoms of cognitive aging can vary from person to person, but they typically include effects like memory loss. Memory loss is one of the most common effects of brain aging. This includes difficulty remembering recent events, names, or faces. Memory loss can also manifest as difficulty recalling information previously learned.
Brain aging also brings about slower reaction times. It takes longer than before for the brain to process information. This means the victim of brain aging will be unable to keep up with conversations. Also, paying attention and focusing on tasks will become more challenging.
Other effects of brain aging are poor decision-making, impaired motor skills, language problems, and a decline in hobbies. As a natural course of life, brain aging cannot be prevented, but it could be delayed by living a healthy life.
Prolonged periods of chronic pain will accelerate these effects of brain aging in a human. Dr. Isaacson’s research showed that people with multiple pain sites fared worse than those with less or no cognitive tasks.
Apart from brain aging, chronic pain also causes inflammation of the brain. A 2019 review of the studies published by the Alzheimer’s Association online journal linked neural inflammation with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. People with higher pain levels are known to have more gray matter in brain areas that influence cognition. CNN further reinforces this view by stating that more than 45% of Alzheimer’s patients live with chronic pain.
The surefire strategy to prevent this is to treat chronic pain as we age and brain and body functions begin to deteriorate. Treatment methods for chronic pain may range from medications to physical and emotional therapy programs. Board-certified chronic pain expert, Jacob Teitelbaum, has this to say on the subject:
“Science has long correlated chronic pain with brain inflammation and neurodegeneration or brain shrinkage,” says Teitelbaum, whose landmark research on effective treatment for the chronic pain of fibromyalgia eliminated over 50 percent of the participants’ pain with a 90 percent improvement in quality of life, including reduced ‘brain fog.’
“The challenge we face today is that there’s no financial incentive for therapies to be developed that don’t involve expensive pharmaceuticals, so doctors aren’t introduced to lower-cost alternatives,” says Teitelbaum. “Even proven therapies are overlooked — to the detriment of patients and the physicians who care for them. By no fault of their own, clinicians and medical students never learn about relatively inexpensive, viable chronic pain therapies.”
He also noted that 30% of all humans and one in five Americans battle chronic pain from arthritis, cancer, or back pain.