At Risk for Dementia? You May Be if You Have Chronic Pain

by Chris Centeno, MD /

risk for dementia

Chronic pain is real, and it can become highly debilitating and even deadly. It’s been a hot topic on the blog because it links to so many other things we discuss, not to mention we have so many patients who make their way to us because they are in chronic pain. Now, a new study suggests that addressing pain as quickly as possible is the right thing to do as living with chronic pain may increase your risk for dementia as you get older.

Let’s review the study.

Study Links Chronic Pain and Dementia Risk

In the new study, researchers hypothesized that chronic pain could cause cognitive decline, leading to an increased risk of dementia in older patients. This was a large study consisting of over 10,000 subjects aged 62 and older (the median age was 73). Comparing those with persistent pain to those without, at the baseline measurement, subjects with pain had 9% more rapid decline of memory. At the accelerated rate, at 10 years this equated to a 16% risk of the inability to manage their own medications and 12% risk of the inability to manage their own finances. The researchers proved their hypothesis, concluding that chronic pain did increase the risk of dementia.

A Few Rules You Can Follow to Lower Your Risk for Dementia

First, address your chronic pain. Don’t just treat the pain; find a doctor who will track the pain to its true source and fix the problem. In the meantime, use supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, which have been shown to be as good as Celebrex at relieving pain and easing with inflammation and without all the dangerous side effects. In conjunction with addressing your pain, here are a few rules that you can follow to help you lower your risk for dementia.

Rule 1: Avoid surgery whenever possible. General anesthesia has been linked to a 35–60% (depending on how sick the patient is) increased risk for dementia and to furthering dementia in patients who already have it. Also, the more surgeries a patient has, the greater the patient’s risk for dementia. Certain general anesthetics do seem to impact the risk factor differently. Isoflurane and sevoflurane, for example, seem to be the hardest hitters to our brain cells. Seeking nonsurgical options to determine your alternatives to knee replacements, back fusions, or ACL repairs, for example, would be a good idea before pulling the surgery trigger.

Rule 2: Don’t take NSAIDs or narcotics: NSAIDs are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs either prescribed (e.g., Celebrex) or take over the counter (e.g., Advil, Aleve) for pain and inflammation. NSAIDs are high-risk drugs linked to cardiovascular issues, including sudden death; gastrointestinal bleeds; and, yes, Alzheimer’s dementia. Narcotics, such as opioids, can actually cause more chronic pain, and they are very high-risk, addictive drugs.

Rule 3: Just say no to diet soda. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past few years about what’s really healthy and what’s not, it’s that artificial sweeteners are bad, bad news. Research has caught up to the fake-sugar marketing gimmicks, and consumers have grown wiser thanks to technology. The ongoing Framingham heart study, while researching links between both real- and fake-sugar sodas and stroke and cardiac risks found an increased risk of something else: a link between diet soda and Alzheimer’s dementia.

Rule 4: Minimize your contact with toxins, particularly car exhaust. This one’s tricky. Toxins are all around us—in our food, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the products we use, and so on—and short of building and living in a sanitized bubble, we are going to come into contact with them. So why car exhaust? A recent study found a direct correlation between Alzheimer’s dementia and subjects living close to major highways. So the next time you’re debating if you should take the interstate or the scenic route home, your brain cells will thank you if you choose the latter.

Rule 5: Keep your brain cells strong and healthy. A recent study showed that we may be able to delay dementia by taking care of our brain phagocytes.These are the cells that clean up plaque, dead cells, infections, and other things we don’t want making a mess in our brain. In addition, we know our brain needs fat to thrive, so staying away from those  low-fat diets and welcoming fat back into the diet makes your brain happy.

The upshot? Whatever your age now, if you are struggling with chronic pain, it’s important to find the source and address it now, before it wreaks havoc on your memory. Following the five rules above will also help keep your brain healthy and lower your risk for dementia.

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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