This at-risk demographic isn’t very worried about COVID-19

One of the most at-risk demographics when it comes to COVID-19 may be putting themselves in greater danger by not taking the coronavirus seriously enough. According to a new study from Georgia State University, older men generally worry less about contracting COVID-19 and subsequent symptoms than similarly aged women and younger people of either gender. 

It’s widely accepted at this point that older adults and the elderly are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and men in general also seem to be more susceptible to the coronavirus than women. So, ironically, the laid back attitude many older males are taking toward COVID-19 is probably the worst course of action available. If anything, older men should be more careful right now, not more relaxed.

This study was primarily authored by Sarah Barber, a gerontology and psychology researcher at GSU. To come to her findings, Ms. Barber sent out an online questionnaire that asked respondents about their fears regarding COVID-19, level of concern, protective measures, and overall perceptions of the pandemic. All of the study’s participants were from the US, with the majority being Caucasian. In all, 146 younger adults (ages 18-35) and 156 older adults (ages 65-81) took part in the research.

Now, prior research has long established that older adults usually worry less than their younger counterparts. As the years pass by and we grow older, it’s common for people to stop stressing as much as they may have in their younger years. Typically, this is even more pronounced among older men. 

However, worry is also a big motivator. For example, worries about getting out of shape spark exercise, or in this case, worrying about COVID-19 helps encourage proactive preventative measures. In this way, older men’s habit of staying worry-free probably isn’t the best approach during a pandemic.

“Not only do older adults exhibit less negative emotions in their daily lives,” Barber says in a university release. “They also exhibit less worry and fewer PTSD symptoms following natural disasters and terrorist attacks.”

“In normal circumstances,” she continues, “not worrying as much is a good thing. Everyday life is probably happier if we worry less. However, where COVID-19 is concerned, we expected that lower amounts of worry would translate into fewer protective COVID-19 behavior changes.”

Excessive stress, anxiety, and worry can wreak havoc on one’s mental and physical health. Normally, it’s always a good idea to relax more and stress less, but when it comes to COVID-19, simply not worrying about it isn’t going to make the problem disappear. 

The online survey was distributed and completed in late March, so right around when the pandemic was becoming very serious in the United States. At that time, respondents were asked if they thought people and the media were overreacting, and how similar they thought COVID-19 was to the flu. 

Participants were also asked how personally worried they were about becoming infected with the coronavirus, possibly dying from it, the possibility of a family member or loved one contracting COVID-19, and overall “lifestyle disruptions.” Other questions gauged subjects’ concerns regarding the coronavirus’ impact on the economy, hospitals, grocery store and pharmacy supplies, and their income.

Finally, respondents were also asked about all the safety measures they had taken or planned to take to protect themselves from COVID-19 (face masks, social distancing, etc).

Only one participant, an older man, flat out said he wasn’t worried at all about COVID-19. Everyone else at least said they were somewhat concerned. Other than that, most respondents (80%) reported washing their hands more often, being more hygienic in general, and avoiding handshakes & public places. Another 60% also said they had stopped socializing with other people. Predictably, the more worried a respondent indicated they were about COVID-19, the more likely that person was to report taking safety measures.

The outlier among the data, though, was older males. In comparison to everyone else, older male respondents indicated being the least worried and taking the fewest safety measures by far. Going off of this data, older men are less likely to wear masks, stop touching their faces, or buy extra food.

But, what can be done? It’s human nature to resist rules or recommendations that are shoved in our face constantly, and with that in mind, Ms. Barber doesn’t think trying to cause more worry is the best way to get through to older men. Instead, more nuanced educational campaigns talking about the unique risks facing older individuals, and men in general, are the best way to go.

“Our study showed that for older men, accurate perception of risk worked as well as worry to predict preventive behaviors,” she says.

Unnecessary stress and worry is usually an albatross in all of our lives, but this research illustrates why these feelings exist in the first place. Sometimes such negative feelings are there for a reason; to incite us to protect ourselves.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journals of Gerontology Series B.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor for Ladders News.