Over half of older adults in the United States – nearly 19 million people – have bothersome pain that impairs their ability to walk and other basic physical activity, according to a new study published in the journal Pain.
“Pain is common in older adults and one of the major reasons why we start slowing down as we age,” said lead investigator Kushang V. Patel, PhD, of the Center for Pain Research in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at the University of Washington.
Researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, which was designed to investigate multiple aspects of functioning in later life.
More than 7,600 people, aged 65 and older, were surveyed. All of the interviews were conducted in the homes of study participants living in community or residential care facilities, such as retirement or assisted-living communities.
The overall prevalence of bothersome pain in the study was 52.9%. Pain was more common in women and in older adults with obesity, musculoskeletal conditions, and symptoms of depression. Nearly three out of four older adults with pain reported multiple sites of pain, such as the back, hips and knees.
Pain was strongly associated with decreased physical capacity, particularly for those with pain in multiple locations, who tended to have weaker muscle strength, slower walking speed, and poorer overall function.
For example, the inability to walk three blocks was 72% higher in older adults with pain than without pain.
Since disability in late life is a major predictor of medical and social service needs, many health care professionals believe that investigating risk factors for functional decline and identifying the high burden of pain in the older adult population is a major public health priority.
“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,” said Patel.
Population aging is occurring in nearly every country in the world. Not only are the number and proportion of older adults increasing, but the older adult population itself is getting older because of gains in life expectancy.