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Persistent pain accelerates aging

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Middle age adults with persistent pain experience disability comparable to 80 to 89 year olds who do not experience pain, according to new study results. The research is the first to examine the effects of persistent pain and age related disability.

Dr. Kenneth Covinsky of the Division of Geriatrics at University of California, San Francisco led the study. “We found that the abilities of those aged 50 to 59 with pain were far more comparable to subjects aged 80 to 89 without pain, of whom 4% were able to jog 1 mile and 55% were able to walk several blocks, making pain sufferers appear 20 to 30 years older than non-pain sufferers.”

Disability in midlife from chronic pain worsens with age. For the current study, researchers examined data related to disability from 18,531 participants in the 2004 Health and Retirement Study. Four areas were looked at: mobility; stair climbing, upper extremity tasks, and, activities of daily living such as dressing, bathing and grooming with or without help. The study found that adults, age 50 and older with persistent pain also had more risk for functional limitations normally associated with more advanced aged.

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The researchers suggest that pain should not be treated as a separate entity. Treating disability that decreases daily function to the level of a much older individual should also be addressed.

Dr. Covinsky says, “Our study cannot determine whether pain causes disability or whether disability causes pain. We think it is likely that both are true and that pain and disability probably can act together in ways that make both problems worsen in a downward spiral.”

The findings show that persistent pain can speed up aging by two to three decades. Pain in mid life adults was found to be associated with significant functional disability. The study highlights the importance of helping patients effectively manage pain by physicians.