We analyzed data from a prospective cohort of older primary care patients to determine whether the presence of peripheral neuropathy (PN) was associated with premature mortality and to investigate potential mechanisms.
PN was defined as the presence of 1 or more bilateral lower extremity sensory deficits detectable by physical examination. Mortality was determined from key contacts and Internet sources. Statistical models were used to evaluate the association between PN and mortality.
Bilateral lower extremity neurological deficits were common, reaching 54% in those 85 and older. PN was strongly associated with earlier mortality. Mean survival time for those with PN was 10.8 years, compared with 13.9 years for subjects without PN. PN was also indirectly associated through impaired balance.
In this relatively healthy cohort of older primary care patients, PN detectable by physical examination was extremely common and strongly associated with earlier mortality. One possible mechanism involves loss of balance, though our data were insufficient to determine whether poor balance led to injurious falls or to less-specific declines in health. These findings may warrant further studies to determine the causes of age-associated PN and potential impact of early detection and balance improvement and other fall prevention strategies.

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