Summary: People who experience chronic pain during middle age report poorer mental and overall health problems later in life.

Source: UCL

Chronic pain is widespread among those in their mid-40s in Britain, with those who experience it more likely to report pain, poor health – including COVID-19 infection – and joblessness later in life, according to a new study by researchers at UCL and Dartmouth College, US.

Published today in the journal PLOS ONE, the research follows more than 12,000 people born in a single week in March 1958 in Britain through to age 62.

The study, funded by the Health Foundation, identifies those suffering short-term pain and chronic pain throughout their lives, and examines its association with health, wellbeing, and labour market outcomes at age 50 (during the 2008 recession), at age 55, and age 62 in 2021 (during the COVID-19 pandemic).  

The study found that by their 40s, two-fifths (41%) of participants reported suffering chronic pain, defined as pain lasting for at least three months. Factors found to predict pain at age 44 include experiencing pain in childhood and the mother’s husband’s social class at the time of a participant’s birth.

The study also found that chronic pain is associated with poor mental health outcomes later in life, with those who experienced chronic pain at age 44 significantly more likely to be unhappy by age 50, and experience depression at age 55. Credit: UCL

The highest level of education of participants at age 44 was also associated with chronic pain; 50% of those with no qualifications had chronic pain compared to 36% of those with a degree, and 27% of those with a higher degree.

Both short-term and chronic pain at age 44 was associated with pain and poor health in later decades of life, with associations strongest for those who experienced chronic pain. The findings show that 84% of those who reported that they had “very severe” pain at age 50 had chronic pain at age 44.

Those suffering chronic pain at age 44 were also more likely to be infected with COVID-19 two decades later in the 2021 survey, which the researchers say suggests that pain is associated with broader health vulnerabilities.

The study also found that chronic pain is associated with poor mental health outcomes later in life, with those who experienced chronic pain at age 44 significantly more likely to be unhappy by age 50, and experience depression at age 55.

Study co-author Professor Alex Bryson (UCL Social Research Institute) said: “Chronic pain is a very serious problem affecting a large number of people. Tracking a birth cohort across their life course, we find chronic pain is highly persistent and is associated with poor mental health outcomes later in life including depression, leading to poorer general health and joblessness. We hope that our research sheds light on this issue and its wide-ranging impacts and that it is taken more seriously by policymakers.”

About this pain and aging research news

Author: Evie Calder
Source: UCL
Contact: Evie Calder – UCL
Image: The image credited to UCL

Original Research: Open access.
“Chronic pain: Evidence from the national child development study” by Alex Bryson et al. PLOS ONE


Abstract

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Chronic pain: Evidence from the national child development study

Using data from all those born in a single week in 1958 in Britain we track associations between short pain and chronic pain in mid-life (age 44) and subsequent health, wellbeing and labor market outcomes in later life.

We focus on data taken at age 50 in 2008, when the Great Recession hit and then five years later at age 55 in 2013 and again at age 62 in 2021 during the Covid pandemic. We find those suffering both short-term and chronic pain at age 44 continue to report pain and poor general health in their 50s and 60s.

However, the associations are much stronger for those with chronic pain.

Furthermore, chronic pain at age 44 is associated with a range of poor mental health outcomes, pessimism about the future and joblessness at age 55 whereas short-duration pain at age 44 is not. Pain has strong predictive power for pain later in life: pain in childhood predicts pain in mid-life, even when one controls for pain in early adulthood.

Pain appears to reflect other vulnerabilities as we find that chronic pain at age 44 predicts whether or not a respondent has Covid nearly twenty years later.



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