Do socioeconomic inequalities in pain, psychological distress and oral health increase or decrease over the life course? Evidence from Sweden over 43 years of follow-up

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Abstract

Background

Inequalities over the life course may increase due to accumulation of disadvantage or may decrease because ageing can work as a leveller. We report how absolute and relative socioeconomic inequalities in musculoskeletal pain, oral health and psychological distress evolve with ageing.

Methods

Data were combined from two nationally representative Swedish panel studies: the Swedish Level-of-Living Survey and the Swedish Panel Study of Living Conditions of the Oldest Old. Individuals were followed up to 43 years in six waves (1968, 1974, 1981, 1991/1992, 2000/2002, 2010/2011) from five cohorts: 1906–1915 (n=899), 1925–1934 (n=906), 1944–1953 (n=1154), 1957–1966 (n=923) and 1970–1981 (n=1199). The participants were 15–62 years at baseline. Three self-reported outcomes were measured as dichotomous variables: teeth not in good conditions, psychological distress and musculoskeletal pain. The fixed-income groups were: (A) never poor and (B) poor at least once in life. The relationship between ageing and the outcomes was smoothed with locally weighted ordinary least squares, and the relative and absolute gaps were calculated with Poisson regression using generalised estimating equations.

Results

All outcomes were associated with ageing, birth cohort, sex and being poor at least once in live. Absolute inequalities increased up to the age of 45–64 years, and then they decreased. Relative inequalities were large already in individuals aged 15–25 years, showing a declining trend over the life course. Selective mortality did not change the results. The socioeconomic gap was larger for current poverty than for being poor at least once in life.

Conclusion

Inequalities persist into very old age, though they are more salient in midlife for all three outcomes observed.

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