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Two fifths of people have chronic pain by their 40s, with consequences for later life

2 November 2022

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.

Man suffering with painful spine injury from fractured joint and inflamed muscles during workout. Struggling with stiff body cramps causing discomfort and strain

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 highest level of education of participants at age 44 was also found to be 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 who had a higher degree.

Both short-term and chronic pain at age 44 were 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, as well as 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.”

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Media contact 
Evie Calder

Tel: +44 (0) 7858 152143
E: e.calder [at] ucl.ac.uk