Pain and Cognitive Function Among Older Adults Living in the Community

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2016 Mar;71(3):398-405. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glv166. Epub 2015 Oct 3.


Background: Pain related to many age-related chronic conditions is a burdensome problem in elderly adults and may also interfere with cognitive functioning. The purpose of this study was to examine the cross-sectional relationship between measures of pain severity and pain interference and cognitive performance in community-living older adults.

Methods: We studied 765 participants in the Maintenance of Balance Independent Living Intellect and Zest (MOBILIZE) Boston Study, a population-based study of persons aged 70 and older. Global pain severity and interference were measured using the Brief Pain Inventory subscales. The neuropsychological battery included measures of attentional capacity (Trail Making Test A, WORLD Test), executive function (Trail Making Test B and Delta, Clock-in-a-Box, Letter Fluency), memory (Hopkins Verbal Learning Test), and a global composite measure of cognitive function. Multivariable linear regression models were used to analyze the relationship between pain and cognitive functioning.

Results: Elderly adults with more severe pain or more pain interference had poorer performance on memory tests and executive functioning compared to elders with none or less pain. Pain interference was also associated with impaired attentional capacity. Additional adjustment for chronic conditions, behaviors, and psychiatric medication resulted in attenuation of many of the observed associations. However, the association between pain interference and general cognitive function persisted.

Conclusions: Our findings point to the need for further research to understand how chronic pain may contribute to decline in cognitive function and to determine strategies that may help in preventing or managing these potential consequences of pain on cognitive function in older adults.

Keywords: Aging; Cognitive function; Epidemiology; Neuropsychology.; Pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Boston / epidemiology
  • Chronic Pain / epidemiology
  • Chronic Pain / physiopathology*
  • Chronic Pain / psychology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Pain Measurement
  • Postural Balance / physiology*