A new study from North Carolina State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology finds that the more people know about COVID-19, the less pandemic-related stress they have. The study also found that making plans to reduce stress was also effective for older adults - but not for adults in their 40s or younger.
"COVID-19 is a new disease - it's not something that people worried about before," says Shevaun Neupert, a professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the study. "So we wanted to see how people were responding to, and coping with, this new source of stress."
To that end, researchers surveyed 515 adults from across the United States. The adults ranged in age from 20-79. The cohort of study participants had an average age of just under 40, and 46 of them were more than 60 years old. The surveys were conducted between March 20 and April 19, 2020.
One part of the survey was a 29-item quiz designed to assess how much study participants knew about COVID-19. Coupled with other elements of the survey, this let researchers assess whether an understanding of COVID-19 made people feel more stress or less.
"We found that knowledge is power," Neupert says. "The more factual information people knew about COVID-19, the less stress they had. That was true across age groups.
"Knowledge reduces uncertainty, and uncertainty can be very stressful," Neupert says. "Although speculative, it is likely that knowledge about this new virus reduced uncertainty, which in turn reduced feelings of pandemic stress."
The researchers went into the study thinking older adults would likely experience more stress related to COVID-19, because the disease was portrayed as particularly dangerous to seniors. But they found that pandemic-related stress levels were the same for all age groups.
"The strongest predictor of stress was concern about getting COVID-19, which isn't surprising," says Neupert. "And the older people were, the more pronounced this effect was."
But older adults also had an advantage: pro-active coping. The use of proactive coping - or making plans to reduce the likelihood of stress - reduced stress in adults over the age of 52. It had no effect for younger adults.
"These results suggest that everyone can benefit from staying engaged with factual information that will increase knowledge about COVID-19," Neupert says. "In addition, older adults who are able to use proactive coping, such as trying to prepare for adverse events, could decrease their pandemic stress."
The paper, "Age Differences in Risk and Resilience Factors in COVID-19-Related Stress," is published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. Corresponding author of the paper is Ann Pearman at Georgia Tech. The paper was co-authored by MacKenzie Hughes of Georgia Tech and Emily Smith, a recent Ph.D. graduate at NC State. The work was done with financial support from the College of Science and the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research at Georgia Tech.
Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.
"Age Differences in Risk and Resilience Factors in COVID-19-Related Stress"
Authors: Ann Pearman and MacKenzie L. Hughes, Georgia Institute of Technology; and Emily L. Smith and Shevaun D. Neupert, North Carolina State University
Published: Aug. 3, 2020, Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences
Objectives: Older adults are at higher risk for death and infirmity from COVID-19 than younger and middle-age adults. The current study examines COVID-19-specific anxiety and proactive coping as potential risk and resilience factors that may be differentially important for younger and older adults in predicting stress experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Method: Five hundred and fifteen adults aged 20-79 in the U.S. reported on their anxiety about developing COVID-19, proactive coping, and stress related to COVID-19 in an online survey.
Results: Although there were no age differences in stress levels, anxiety about developing COVID-19 was associated with more COVID-19 stress for older adults relative to younger adults, but proactive coping was associated with less COVID-19 stress for older adults relative to younger adults.
Discussion: Our results suggest that anxiety might function as a risk factor whereas proactive coping may function as a resilience factor for older adults' COVID-19 stress. We encourage future context-dependent investigations into mental health among older adults during this pandemic and beyond.