How does age affect personal and social reactions to COVID-19: Results from the national Understanding America Study

PLoS One. 2020 Nov 10;15(11):e0241950. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0241950. eCollection 2020.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had tremendous impact on Americans' lives including their personal and social behaviors. While people of all ages are affected in some way by the pandemic, older persons have been far more likely to suffer the most severe health consequences. For this reason, how people have responded to mitigating behaviors to COVID-19 may differ by age. Using a nationally representative sample from the longitudinal data of the Understanding America Study (UAS), we examined differentials in behavioral responses to COVID-19 by age and how they changed over the first three months of the pandemic. Behavioral responses and changes in behavior over time differed by age, type of behaviors and time reference. At the beginning of the pandemic (March, 2020), older and younger people were similar in their likelihood of engaging in preventive personal behaviors when controlling for other influences. As the pandemic progressed, however, older people adopted mitigating personal behavioral changes more than younger people, such that about 1-2 months after the pandemic started, older people were more likely to comply with suggested behaviors and regulations including practicing better hygiene, quarantining, and social distancing. One month into the pandemic, older people were less likely than younger people to engage in two of four risky behaviors. The change in risky behavior over time did not differ by age; but both younger and older people were more likely to engage in risky behaviors after two months. Being female, a member of a racial/ethnic minority group, higher socioeconomic status, having more COVID-19 cases in one's state of residence, a higher perceived risk for infection and dying, and a more left-leaning political orientation were related to adopting more pandemic mitigating behaviors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Betacoronavirus / isolation & purification
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / pathology*
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Ethnicity
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Pandemics / prevention & control
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / pathology*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Social Behavior*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult