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Study: Chronic pain in Canadian seniors

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The Daily

Thursday, February 21, 2008
1996/1997 and 2005

Chronic pain affects more than one-quarter of seniors living in households and close to 4 out of every 10 in institutions, and it can have a profound impact on their quality of life, according to a new study.

The study, based on data from two separate health surveys, examined the prevalence of chronic pain among seniors aged 65 and over living in private households and in long-term health care institutions.

Many seniors, particularly those who were institutionalized, experienced pain on a regular basis, and were therefore limited in their mobility and dexterity.

According to data from the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey, chronic pain affected 27% of seniors living in households, compared with just 16% of the household population aged 18 to 64.

However, the prevalence of chronic pain was highest in health care institutions, where 38% of seniors were affected by it, according to the Health Institutions component of the 1996/1997 National Population Health Survey (NPHS).

Chronic pain can make life miserable for seniors. Based on longitudinal data from the NPHS, an increase in pain over a two-year period was associated with higher odds of being unhappy, or having a negative, self-perceived impression of personal health at the end of the period.

The study noted that the issue of chronic pain will become even more relevant as the population ages. By 2031, seniors are expected to account for between 23% and 25% of the total population, nearly double their proportion of 13% in 2005.

Chronic pain interferes with daily activities

Many people reported that chronic pain interfered with their activities, the study found. The more intense the pain, the more likely it was to interfere with most activities.

For the household population with severe pain, 53% stated that it interfered with most activities. Among institutional residents in severe pain, 64% reported major activity interference.

Seniors who experienced an increase in pain over a two-year period had greater odds of being unhappy, regardless of illness or other factors that would contribute to unhappiness.

An increase in pain had a similar effect on self-perceived health. Seniors were more likely to have a negative impression of their general health after their pain increased to moderate levels, compared with those who remained pain-free, or had low levels of pain. The odds were even higher for those who suffered an increase to severe levels of pain.

Women consistently more likely than men to report chronic pain

Women were consistently more likely than men to report chronic pain, regardless of whether they were seniors or of working age (18 to 64), or whether they were institutionalized. The largest gap was among seniors living in households, where 31% of women reported chronic pain compared with 21% of men.

Among seniors living in households, those with lower education or income were more likely to suffer chronic pain. Education level was also a factor among institutionalized seniors.

Chronic pain was more common among seniors than were several other major chronic conditions. For seniors in private households, it was more common than diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease, among others. In institutions, only incontinence, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease were more common.

Among all seniors, however, pain and other chronic conditions were closely related. Over half of seniors in households (56%) reported two or more chronic conditions, as did 83% of institutionalized seniors. And those with at least two chronic conditions were more likely to experience chronic pain than were those with fewer conditions.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey numbers, including related surveys, 3225, 3226 and 5003.

The article, "Chronic pain in Canadian seniors," which is part of today's Health Reports online release, Vol. 19, no. 1 (82-003-XWE, free), is now available from the Publications module of our website.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this article, contact Pamela L. Ramage-Morin (613-951-1760;, Health Information and Research Division.

For more information about Health Reports, contact Christine Wright (613-951-1765;, Health Information and Research Division.

The National Population Health Survey Household Component (survey number 3225) and Health Institutions Component (survey number 5003) microdata are available at Statistics Canada's Research Data Centres. For more information, visit The Research Data Centres Program page of our website.

For more information on the National Population Health Survey's components, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of the survey, contact Data Access and Information Services (613-951-1746;, Health Statistics Division.