Because they’re less concerned, older men are also less likely to have adopted behavioral changes to lower their risk of becoming infected, such as wearing a mask or keeping their hands away from their faces, the study also reports.
These findings are troubling and suggest “a critical need for COVID-19 behavioral change interventions targeted at older men,” the study’s authors conclude.
As has been clear from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, older people are at an increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. And men — of all ages — are at a greater risk than women. So, although everybody should be worried about getting COVID-19 — and taking steps to prevent it — that is especially true for older men.
Having some level of worry can be a good thing. It’s been shown in past studies to motivate people to adopt beneficial health-related behaviors — to get a flu shot, for example, or to quit smoking or to go for a cancer screening.
Men tend to worry less than women, however. In addition, worry tends to slacken with age.
“Not only do older adults exhibit less negative emotions in their daily lives, they also exhibit less worry and fewer PTSD symptoms following natural disasters and terrorist attacks,” explains Sarah Barber, a co-author of the new study and a professor of gerontology and psychology at Georgia State University, in a released statement.
Barber and Hyunji Kim, a doctoral student at Georgia State, decided to examine how this tendency of older adults to worry less was affecting their attitudes and actions regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
“In normal circumstances, not worrying as much is a good thing. Everyday life is probably happier if we worry less,” says Barber. “However, where COVID-19 is concerned, we expected that lower amounts of worry would translate into fewer protective COVID-19 behavior changes.”
For the study, the researchers had 302 American adults fill out online questionnaires between March 23 and March 31, which was two to three weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The participants included 146 younger adults (aged 18 to 35) and 156 older ones (aged 65 to 81). Most were white and had at least some college education. None had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Participants were asked about their perceptions of how risky COVID-19 is — whether they thought people were overreacting to the virus, for example, and whether they thought its risks were similar to those of the flu. The questionnaire also assessed their worries about the virus, including whether they were concerned about catching or dying from it themselves, about local hospitals being overwhelmed, about disruptions to their lifestyle, about their income declining and about stores running out of food or medicine.
The participants were also asked to indicate whether they had engaged in certain risk-reducing behaviors because of COVID-19, such as washing their hands more frequently, wearing a mask, not shaking hands, not touching their own face, not socializing with others and avoiding restaurants, public transportation and other public places. In addition, they were asked if they were taking more general health-related actions in an effort to avoid contracting COVID-19, such as eating a more balanced diet.
Most of the participants said they were at least moderately concerned about COVID-19. Only one — an older male — reported not being worried at all about the pandemic. The study also found that the participants’ worry had led to changed behaviors. More than 80 percent of them said they were washing their hands more often, taking greater care about personal cleanliness, no longer shaking hands and avoiding public places. More than 60 percent said they had stopped socializing with others.
Not surprisingly, people who expressed the most concerns about the virus were the ones most likely to have changed their behavior.
Older men, however, bucked both these trends. Compared to the other participants, older men expressed the lowest level of concern about COVID-19. They also had made the fewest behavioral changes.
By contrast, older women did not differ significantly from younger adults of both genders in terms of taking actions to lower their risk. They were particularly likely to report social distancing and avoiding public places.
Limitations and implications
The participants in the study were predominantly white, well-educated individuals with internet access. “Although our results did not change when we adjusted for background factors, patterns reported here may not hold for all older adults,” Barber and Kim note.
In addition, the questionnaires were completed somewhat early in coronavirus pandemic, when people were just beginning to react to it. “We all hope that a more accurate perception of risk has evolved over the last two months,” says Barber.
Still, the study’s findings are concerning, given the continued vulnerability of older men to the coronavirus.
The answer, however, isn’t to make older men worry more, says Barber. Instead, public health officials need to focus on educating older men about COVID-19 so that they’ll adopt protective behaviors even if they don’t feel worried, she says.
FMI: You can find the study on the website for the Journals of Gerontology.