Educational attainment, family background and the emergence of pain gradients in adulthood by Michael Topping and Jason Fletcher (2024)

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Social Science & Medicine


Current studies have indicated that the number of individuals living with pain has risen in recent years, with nearly half of all adults in some countries living with some form of pain. Such trends have prompted researchers to explore differences in pain across different sociodemographic groups, with a dominant focus on educational attainment. However, much of the studies fail to consider the confounding role of early life characteristics, such as family background. Using data on over 400,000 individuals from the UK Biobank, we look at how educational attainment is associated with nine different domains of pain (headache, facial, neck, back, hip, knee, stomach, all over, and no pain). Ultimately, we find that compared to those with no educational credentials, education is associated with anywhere between a 0.1–15% change in the likelihood of reporting pain, depending on pain type and education level, with the greatest change occurring in those with the highest level. Yet, when accounting for family background characteristics in the form of sibling fixed effects, nearly all relationships between education and pain fell by either 50% or were eliminated. We ultimately conclude that failure to consider early life characteristics, such as family background characteristics may lead to inflated estimates of pain, and that future research should delve into early life exposures and their influence on pain in adulthood.