An unexpected effect of chronic pain: Brain aging

Chronic musculoskeletal pain (CMP) is an excruciating condition. It’s defined as persistent pain affecting the muscles, joints and bones that has lasted longer than three months.

CMP affects more than 40 percent of the world’s population. It’s a leading cause of disability and can impact patients’ cognitive function.

How is that last bit possible? Well, some research indicates there may be a link between brain aging and CMP because inflammatory markers associated with brain aging are higher in CMP patients.

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It’s all in the genes

To further explore this connection, an international team of researchers decided to examine the profiles of brain aging patterns and underlying mechanisms in different types of CMP. They used structural MRI data from more than 9,000 individuals to develop a model to compare brain age to chronological age.

What they found was that individuals with knee osteoarthritis pain (KOA) experienced more rapid brain aging than healthy individuals. In addition, they found regions in the brain responsible for cognitive function, such as the hippocampus, were associated with this accelerated brain aging.

“We not only revealed the specificity of accelerated brain aging in KOA patients, but importantly, we also provided longitudinal evidence suggesting the ability of our brain aging marker to predict future memory decline and increased dementia risk,” says Tu Yiheng, a professor at the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and corresponding author of the study.

The researchers identified the gene SLC39A8 as a shared link between KOA and faster brain aging. This gene is particularly expressed in microglial cells and astrocytes and underscores the potential role of inflammation and neurodevelopment in the phenomenon of pain and accelerated brain aging.

Microglial cells are the first immune cells to respond when there’s something wrong in the brain. Astrocytes are a subtype of glial cells in the central nervous system that perform various tasks such as clearing excess neurotransmitters, stabilizing and regulating the blood-brain barrier and promoting synapse formation.

These results provide evidence for the neurocognitive impacts of KOA and could open new channels for early detection and intervention strategies targeting dementia risk factors.

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Reduce pain, inflammation and symptoms of brain aging

Managing CMP can be difficult since the source of the pain is often unclear. But given the results of this study, reducing inflammation could be a first step.

Fortunately, there is a diet that can take care of both these issues. The keto diet has been shown in studies to both reduce chronic pain and quell brain inflammation.

Keto involves significantly reducing carbs in your diet and replacing them with fats. When you do this, your body goes into a metabolic state known as ketosis, where it begins fueling itself with ketones (derived from fat) instead of glucose (derived from carbs).

Research shows that by stopping your body from turning to glucose for energy, keto activates a protein that suppresses inflammatory genes. This impacts everything from pain to anxiety and depression to brain inflammation.

So if you’re looking to manage chronic pain, you may want to give keto a try. Just be warned — it is a challenging diet to follow. An alternative is the cyclical keto diet. On this version, you follow the keto diet for five days, then go high carb for two days.

You can also consider adding inflammation-fighting supplements to your daily regimen. One that pulls triple duty for beating back pain, inflammation and brain aging is the omega-3 fatty acids. You can also find them in fatty fish, nuts, seeds and plant oils.

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Chronic musculoskeletal pain may accelerate brain aging — EurekAlert!

Morphological and genetic decoding shows heterogeneous patterns of brain aging in chronic musculoskeletal pain — Nature Mental Health

Chronic or Persistent Musculoskeletal Pain — NHS Tyneside Integrated Musculoskeletal Service

What Do Microglia Really Do in Healthy Adult Brain? — Cells

Histology, Astrocytes — StatPearls

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.