Chronic Pain Linked to Memory Decline and Dementia

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A study by Whitlock et al from the University of California, published in this month’s Jama Internal Medicine, looked into the relationship between persistent pain, memory decline and dementia. Over 10,000 senior citizens (median age of 73 years) from the Health and Retirement Study were followed for 12 years.

At baseline, persistent pain affected 11% of participants and was linked with more restrictions in daily activities and more symptoms of depression. Those with persistent pain had a greater risk (9%) of having a more rapid memory decline than those without pain. They also had a smaller increase in risk (2%) of developing dementia. These changes significantly increased the chances of being unable to manage medications (16%) or finances (12%).

What’s the causal connection between chronic pain, memory decline and dementia? The authors believe the severity of pain can decrease attention capacity and impair memory consolidation. Additionally, pain leads to stress, and stress has been shown to promote cognitive decline, mainly through hypotrophy of the hippocampus. In my opinion, the disruption of sleep can also contribute to poor memory and a decline in cognitive ability because, as we know, sleep is involved in memory processing and consolidation.

Fortunately, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, relaxation and mindfulness meditation are effective at addressing chronic pain.

Meditation Increases Blood Flow To The Brain

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Recent research has shown that mantra-based meditation increases cerebral blood flow. An improvement in attention, emotional state and memory was also noted. Therefore, it’s likely that people with cognitive impairments or memory loss will benefit from meditation.

Exercise Improves Brain Function

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Researchers Art Kramer and Laura Chaddock, from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, have found that children that are aerobically fitter perform better at memory tests than their less fit peers. The improvement in brain function is linked to an increased hippocampal volume. The hippocampus is a structure deep within the brain that is involved with learning and memory. This would suggest that exercise plays a crucial role in the brain development of children.

As we age, there is a natural decline in our mental function. However, studies have shown that this process can be slowed or even reversed! Dr Kirk Erickson conducted a 9 year follow-up study that demonstrated that increased exercise, in the form of walking, was associated with greater grey matter volume and less cognitive impairment. This can have dramatic effects on our ability to lead normal independent lives well into our old age.

The reason for the beneficial influence of exercise on brain growth and function may be due to a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). It supports the survival of existing nerve cells and promotes the growth of new ones and increases the levels of circulating BDNF.

These findings support the promotion of life-long exercise. I guess this sheds new light on the old Roman adage: “a healthy mind in a healthy body”!