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Logo of bmcmrmBioMed Centralsearchsubmit a manuscriptregisterthis articleBMC Medical Research Methodology
BMC Med Res Methodol. 2012; 12: 88.
Published online 2012 June 27. doi:  10.1186/1471-2288-12-88
PMCID: PMC3438121

Validity of two simple measures for estimating life-course socio-economic position in cross-sectional postal survey data in an older population: results from the North Staffordshire Osteoarthritis Project (NorStOP)



Since few cohorts encompass the whole life-course, many studies that measure socio-economic position (SEP) across the life-course rely on participant recall of SEP measures from cross-sectional postal or interview surveys. It is also particularly important that SEP measures should be appropriate for the age of the population studied, as the level of missing data has been shown to increase in older people. The aim of this study was to investigate the accuracy of recall of two SEP measures in older adults, age left school and longest job, by examining their validity in a general population postal survey in North Staffordshire, UK.


Sets of questions on education and longest job were included in a questionnaire at different stages of the study. All patients aged 50+ registered with three general practices were sent a baseline Health Questionnaire. 6 years later, 3410 responders were mailed a follow-up Health Questionnaire; a sub-sample of these participants took part in independent qualitative interviews. Validity was assessed by: percentage completion; internal percentage agreement within each set of questions; percentage agreement of qualitative and quantitative data for age left school and longest job; comparing recall of age left school with historical change in legal school leaving age; comparing frequency of pottery job titles with those in 1981 Census data for Stoke-on-Trent.


The adjusted response to different stages of the study was 71–85%. Completion of questions was 83–98%. Internal agreement was 84–97% (education) and 95–100% (longest job). Comparison of survey and interview data showed 86% agreement (± 1 year) for age left school and 91% agreement for longest job. The change in age left school data concurred with the historical shift in legal school leaving age. 11% of job titles were pottery in NorStOP data and 15% in Stoke-on-Trent Census data.


The results from this study provide evidence for the accuracy of recall of two simple measures of SEP (age left school and longest job) in a postal survey of older adults. Consistency with evidence from external datasets indicated the potential validity of these measures for studying life-course SEP in population surveys.

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