More than half of older Americans — an estimated 18.7 million people — are living with chronic pain that impairs their mobility and physical function.
That's the latest word from a survey by researchers from the University of Washington and published in the journal Pain.
The findings underscore the need for clinicians and health officials to pay more attention to pain and accompanying disability in the elderly, according to lead researcher Kushang V. Patel, of the Center for Pain Research on Impact, Measurement, and Effectiveness in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at the University of Washington.
"Pain is common in older adults and one of the major reasons why we start slowing down as we age," said Patel.
The findings are based on interviews with seniors living on their own or in residential care facilities, such as retirement or assisted-living communities. Among the researchers' conclusions:
- Pain was more common in women and in older adults with obesity, musculoskeletal conditions, and depressive symptoms.
- Bothersome pain afflicts half (52 percent) of community-dwelling older adults in the United States.
- The majority (74.9 percent) with pain reported having pain in multiple locations, such as in the back, hips, and knees.
- The percentage of people with pain did not differ by age, even when researchers accounted for dementia and cognitive performance.
- Pain was strongly associated with decreased physical capacity. Older adults with pain, particularly those with pain in multiple locations, had weaker muscle strength, slower walking speed, and poorer overall function than those without pain.
The researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS), funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. Investigators conducted in-person interviews with 7,601 adults ages 65 years and older who were enrolled in the NHATS in 2011. All were Medicare beneficiaries.
"Considering that pain is often poorly managed in the geriatric population, our findings underscore the need for public health action, including additional epidemiologic research and the development and translation of interventions aimed at improving pain and function in older adults," Patel concluded.
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