Physical activity, sleep disturbance, and the likelihood of future pain in older adults

Physical activity, sleep disturbance, and the likelihood of future pain in older adults

What was this study about?

Pain is a leading and growing cause of disability across the world, and it is more common among older people. Meanwhile, physical activity levels tend to decline with age, and it is thought that this may contribute to this increased pain in older adults. We wondered therefore if maintaining a physically active lifestyle into older age could prevent pain onset.

In addition, sleep quality can also decline with age and it is possible that any benefits of a physically active lifestyle, including the prevention of pain, might be reduced if sleep health is not also attended to.

This study therefore examined whether higher levels of physical activity in older adults:

  • were associated with a lower likelihood of pain, and
  • whether sleep quality had any impact on this relationship.

What did we do?

We used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a survey of Americans aged 50 years and older, which is conducted via household face-to-face or telephone interviews every two years.

We looked at 9,828 people without pain surveyed in 2014, including information about their physical activity levels and any sleep disturbances, and then compared this with their responses in 2016 to see if anything had changed.

Those interviewed for this study were selected in such a way that they represent the US population, meaning that our findings are representative of over 50 million American adults aged 50 years and above.

What did we find?

Of those studied, we found that in 2014:

  • 38% participated in either moderate or vigorous physical activity once a week or less, and therefore did not meet currently recommended physical activity guidelines for this age group
  • 32% reported experiencing sleep disturbance ‘most of the time’

19% of the people in the study went on to report troublesome pain in 2016. Those who had higher levels of physical activity were generally less likely to go on to report pain. However, if sleep disturbance was frequent, higher levels of physical activity were not associated with a lower likelihood of pain in 2016. Our results are illustrated in the following diagram:

What does this mean?

The World Health Organization’s most recent World Report on Ageing and Health includes physical activity as an important lifestyle behaviour to ensure adults remain healthy as they age. This document does not, however, mention sleep. While our results agree that remaining physically active is important to lower the chances that you will go on to experience troublesome pain, it also highlights the importance of sleep health in combination with a physically active lifestyle. With additional corroborating research, this would build an argument to include sleep health in healthy ageing guidelines.

Who funded this work?

This study was funded by Versus Arthritis.

Where can I read more?

To view the scientific paper, click here.