Chronic pain may accelerate brain aging

Researchers found the brain age of older adults with chronic pain had accelerated by an average of two years

By Bill Levesque

Scientists have long recognized the human brain appears to keep time to its own internal clock, its biological age speeding or slowing depending on a host of factors.

Someone with a higher education, for example, might have a younger-looking brain than someone without one, research has suggested. Surprisingly, dancing appears to keep the brain young. Meditation might do the same. And stress has been associated with an older-appearing brain.

Now, a new study led by a UF Institute on Aging researcher has found the brain age of older adults with chronic pain had accelerated by an average of two years. This might have important health implications since previous research has associated accelerated brain aging with an elevated risk of poor mental and physical health, including Alzheimer’s disease.

“The greater the pain intensity they were experiencing, the older looking their brain,” said Yenisel Cruz-Almeida, Ph.D., MSPH, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine’s departments of aging and geriatric research; neuroscience; and epidemiology, which also is in the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “In previous studies, each year of older brain age relative to your chronological age is actually predictive of about a 6 percent increase in the risk of death.”

The UF research team, which included PHHP clinical and health psychology faculty members Adam J. Woods, Ph.D., Eric Porges, Ph.D., and Ronald Cohen, Ph.D., found that people who received treatments for their pain, from medication to even home remedies like a cold compress on an aching knee, had younger-appearing brains, suggesting that pain relief might slow that internal clock.

Meanwhile, individuals without chronic pain had on average a brain that appeared four years younger than their actual age.

“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 Cruz-Almeida.

But, she added, “There appear to be avenues or things that could be done to change brain age.”

The study, published in the journal Pain, showed that people with a positive affect — those who have a happier outlook on life and were generally more upbeat, even when they have chronic pain — had younger-appearing brains.