Pain is getting worse in middle-aged, less-educated Americans, says psychology prof.

September 30, 2020

Researchers who have conducted a survey on the relationship between age and reported physical pain between some 2.5 million adults in the US surmise that each generation of less-educated Americans experience greater pain throughout their lives. The findings show that today’s less-educated elderly have experienced less pain throughout their lives than at least two-thirds of the US population without a four-year college degree. The researchers believe that this should spur policymakers to take the issue of pain and its treatment more seriously.

“This seems to be an exclusively American phenomenon, as people in other rich countries do not report higher pain in midlife,” said Anne Case, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (Princeton). “The connection between less-educated Americans and pain is shaped by a number of factors from income to social isolation to rising deaths of despair. It’s of great concern to us, as researchers, that it seems to be worsening.”

Along with a fellow researcher from Princeton and a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California (USC), Case analysed reports of pain recorded from four US surveys among adults aged 25-79 in the US  (black, white non-Hispanics) and 20 other wealthy countries. 

The researchers found that men and women of all races worldwide complained of more pain as they age, a finding they expected. However, each American birth cohort reported higher levels of pain throughout their adult life than the cohort before them – middle-aged Americans reported more pain at any given age than their elders, who have had lower pain levels throughout their lives.

The rise in pain from cohort to cohort signals increasing chronic intergenerational distress, which could be caused by a myriad of factors including prolonged social isolation, more fragile home lives, less marriage, and more divorce, as well as stagnant wages and job loss. They’ve also seen rising deaths of despair, from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholic liver disease.

“Pain undermines quality of life, and pain is getting worse for less-educated Americans,” said Sir Angus Deaton, Princeton University Professor of International Affairs. “This not only makes their lives worse, but will pose long-term problems for a dysfunctional healthcare system that is not good at treating pain.”

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Category: Education, Features

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