Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, old and young individuals did not differ in taking precautions, but over time, older people quickly adopted preventive behaviors and they engaged in more preventive behaviors. Older people engaged in fewer risky behaviors relative to younger people on month after the beginning of the pandemic and this age difference persisted over time; both young and older people started engaging in more potentially risky behaviors. These findings come from a new study by Jung Ki Kim at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, published November 10 in the open-access journal Plos One.

The risk of dying from COVID-19 dramatically increases with age, because the elderly are more likely to have underlying health conditions and a weaker immune system. To see if older individuals were more likely to take precautions against COVID-19, such as handwashing, quarantining and social distancing, Kim and her USC colleague, Eileen Crimmins, examined data on COVID-19-related behaviors from a nationally representative sample of American households participating in the Understanding America Study.

They discovered that early on, old and young people were equally likely to take precautions, but a month into the pandemic, young people were more likely to engage in some risky behaviors, like visiting friends. As the pandemic progressed, however, both old and younger people resumed some potentially risky activities. The researchers also found that people who are female, of higher socioeconomic status, a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, or left-of-center politically, or who live in a place with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, were more likely to try to limit their risk of infection.

Overall, the new study shows that people of different ages responded differently to the threat posed by COVID-19, and that these responses changed with the course of the pandemic. Given the more severe consequences for older people who are infected – and the lack of a cure – the authors encourage older individuals to continue taking precautions and to avoid risky behaviors until a vaccine can be developed and distributed.

The authors add: “It is encouraging to observe older people taking more preventive personal behaviors as the pandemic progressed. This may have alleviated their risk of infection. However, at the same time, it is concerning that people increased risky social behaviors over time, particularly older people, who could have more adverse consequences from meeting with family and friends.”