Background: People with Alzheimer's disease (AD) report pain less frequently and receive less pain medication than people without AD. Recent studies have begun to elucidate how pain may be altered in those with AD. However, potential sex differences in pain responsiveness have never been explored in these patients. It is unclear whether sex differences found in prior studies of healthy young and older individuals extend to people with AD.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine sex differences in the psychophysical response to experimental thermal pain in people with AD.
Methods: Cross-sectional analysis of 14 male and 14 female age-matched (≥65 years of age, median = 74) and AD severity-matched (Mini-Mental State Exam score <24, median = 16) communicative people who completed thermal psychophysics.
Results: There was a statistically significant main effect of sex for both temperature and unpleasantness ratings that persisted after controlling for average and current pain (mixed-effects general liner model: temperature: p = 0.004, unpleasantness: p < 0.001). Females reported sensing mild pain and moderate pain percepts at markedly lower temperatures than did males (mild: Cohen's d = 0.72, p = 0.051, moderate: Cohen's d = 0.80, p = 0.036). By contrast, males rated mild and moderate thermal pain stimuli as more unpleasant than did females (mild: Cohen's d = 0.80, p = 0.072, moderate: Cohen's d = 1.32, p = 0.006). There were no statistically significant correlations of temperature with perceived unpleasantness for mild or moderate pain (rs = 0.29 and rs = 0.20 respectively, p > 0.05).
Conclusions: Results suggest experimental pain-related sex differences persist in older adults with AD in a different manner than those previously demonstrated in cognitively intact older adults. These findings could potentially aid in developing targeted pain management approaches in this vulnerable population. Further studies are warranted to replicate the findings from this pilot work.
Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; dementia; pain; pain threshold; perception; sex differences.