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Less-educated consumers experience more pain in midlife, study finds

Experts worry about how this will affect consumers as they age

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Photo (c) Cecilie Arcurs - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Princeton University found that education status could affect consumers’ pain levels -- particularly in middle age. 

According to their findings, less-educated consumers report higher levels of pain in middle age than both elderly consumers and those who have completed four years of college. 

“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,” said researcher Anne Case. “It’s of great concern to us, as researchers, that it seems to be worsening.” 

Assessing accounts of chronic pain

The researchers analyzed data from several different global surveys that included responses from consumers in their mid-twenties through late-seventies about their experiences with pain. The researchers also included responses from participants born in different generations to better understand how experiences of chronic pain have remained the same or changed over time. 

Consistent with what the researchers were expecting, participants reported higher levels of pain as they aged. However, as the researchers analyzed the responses from different angles, they discovered that education status also played a large role. 

Participants who didn’t finish college reported the highest levels of pain at any age, with pain worsening over time. This is important because this group experienced more pain during middle age than both middle-aged college graduates and elderly participants without college degrees. The study also revealed that each generation has reported higher levels of pain than the one before, which means that those presently in midlife who didn’t finish college are expected to endure more pain than those who came before them. 

“This seems to be an exclusively American phenomenon, as people in other rich countries do not report higher levels of pain in mid-life,” said Case. 

Helping consumers manage pain

The researchers explained that several factors -- both economic and emotional -- are likely coming into play here. However, these findings are important when thinking about future health care decisions. As the population ages, having effective treatments in place to help consumers manage their pain will be key to maintaining a healthy life. 

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

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