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New Study Suggests Link Between Chronic Pain And Prematurely Aging Brains

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Virtually all of us will have to endure some aches and pains in the course of growing older. Maybe a bad back that makes getting out of bed a grueling ordeal. Or arthritic knees that seem to throb in protest after the slightest attempt at bending.

But if the pain becomes chronic, a new University of Florida studysuggests that not tending to it can age your brain prematurely, and may put you at a heightened risk for Alzheimer’s disease and even for earlier death.

"The biology of aging is actually very complex and we do not yet fully understand it," says Professor Yenisel Cruz-Almeida, a researcher with UF's Institute on Aging and the study’s lead author. "However, we DO understand that as we age, cells, tissues and different organs in our bodies actually undergo profound changes that could be different from actual chronological age."

For three years, Cruz-Almeida studied a group of 47 adults -- ages 60 to 83 --  in relatively good health, both with and without chronic pain. To measure their "brain ages," she used MRI scans to study the volume of gray and white matter in their brains.

She found that individuals who received treatment for their pain -- with methods including medication or even cold compresses -- had a brain age that looked younger than their chronological age. Additionally, Cruz-Almeida found that individuals who had a more positive outlook on life or exercised regularly had younger-looking brains, even if they suffered from chronic pain.

Cruz-Almeida says further study will help solve a "chicken-egg" puzzle that still confounds scientists: Does chronic pain cause faster brain aging? Or does an older brain exacerbate one's chronic pain? 

She says UF's Institute on Aging will start a similar study this coming fall.


Christine DiMattei is WLRN's Morning Edition anchor and also reports on Arts & Culture.
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