One of the more intriguing paradoxes emerging from the rubble of the COVID-19 pandemic is new evidence suggesting that older adults — those at the greatest risk of severe illness and death from the virus — fared much better than their younger counterparts when it comes to coping with pandemic-related distress, anxiety, depression and social isolation.
“There’s been a lot of recent research exploring why the pandemic has had such a devastating psychological impact on adolescents and young people, but these studies tend to ignore the question of why distress levels have remained so much more stable in older adults,” said Sandra Hale, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Our study suggests that the degree to which adults’ distress levels changed during the pandemic was inversely related to their age — the exact opposite of what one might have expected based on age differences in the risk of severe negative consequences from infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” she said.
The study, published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, offers further evidence that the pandemic is just one of many factors contributing to an ongoing surge in mental health problems among young people worldwide.
It also suggests that our ability to cope with stressors, such as the pandemic, hinges heavily on individual personality and emotional characteristics that change as we age.
“There is evidence to suggest that stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may have come on the heels of an ongoing mental health crisis, potentially creating a perfect storm of psychological distress, especially among young people,” Hale said. “The pandemic focused our attention on how people were coping with distress, but our study shows that many of these mental health issues were already rising among young people before the pandemic and they would have continued increasing to near-current levels even without the pandemic.”
Co-authored by Washington University professors Joel Myerson, PhD, Michael Strube, PhD and Leonard Green, PhD, and undergraduate student Amy Lewandowski, all in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, this research is part of an ongoing series of studies on how aging and personality influence pandemic-coping behaviors.