Aging and the Neurobiology of Pain

Keith B.J. Franklin, PhD
Professor, Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC.

Frances V. Abbott, PhD
Professor, Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, QC.


Chronic pain afflicts a majority of persons over the age of 60 and a large proportion of those afflicted receives little or no treatment. Many of the long-term conditions that limit activity involve pain, although recognition of pain in primary care settings is complicated by the fact that stoicism tends to increase with age, and older people tend to focus on acute pain and under-report chronic complaints.1 Activity limitation, as a health indicator, has improved over the past twenty years for non-institutionalized Canadians in the 45-64 and 65-74 age groups (from 19 to 16% and 33 to 22%, respectively). In contrast, the prevalence of activity limitation in those over 75 has remained stable at around 35%. The most significant painful conditions that limit activity, arthritis and rheumatism, have remained stable over the past 20 years with an incidence of about 50% for women and just over 30% for men aged 65 and over.2

In light of the prevalence of pain in the elderly, it is surprising how little is known about the influence of age on the neurology and pharmacology of pain.