Persistent Pain May Speed Signs of Aging, Study Reveals

September 29, 2009
Medill Reports Chicago
Renee Park

Clarise Hildreth, 88, has pain in the knees, stiffness and wears a pain patch. The resident of the Johnston R. Bowman Health Center in Chicago’s West Side, was diagnosed with a severe arthritic condition affecting her spine.

But while she suffers from pain, she still enjoys participating in daily activities, including shopping and going out to lunch with friends.

“You can adjust your life to the pain. If you work out and take the medicines and treatments that are necessary, then you can do it. It’s [in] the mindset,” she said. She said she started feeling persistent back pain several years ago. Hildreth is among the lucky ones because she gets pain relief.

It’s common knowledge that as you get older, daily tasks such as carrying your groceries, can get harder. A new Northwestern University and University of California, San Francisco study, published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found constant pain interferes with people’s ability to accomplish basic tasks. They found that pain may accelerate some signs normally associated with aging.

“The rate at which people develop disabilities associated with aging happens at markedly different rates,” said Dr. Kenneth Covinsky, the lead researcher of the study and staff physician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. Pain may help explain why some people experience functional limitations in mobility, or a decline in the ability to do simple tasks, faster than others, he said.

Researchers analyzed data from over 18,000 Americans involved in the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Started in 1992 and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the Health and Retirement Study is an ongoing longitudinal study that focuses on Americans aged 50 and over.

Participants were asked to rate their ability levels across four measures: mobility, stair climbing, upper extremity tasks, including the ability to lift their arms over their heads, and activity of daily living, such as dressing and eating. Beforehand, subjects were asked if they experienced pain on a regular basis. Subjects with pain then rated their pain levels from mild to severe.

Subjects in their fifties with persistent pain were similar to subjects in their eighties without continuous pain. For example, while more than 90 percent of subjects in their fifties without pain were able to walk several blocks, only 50 percent of pain ridden subjects in their fifties reported walking several blocks with ease. More…