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Study: Older Americans know more about COVID than connected youth

Why a survey claims Boomers demonstrate more knowledge and safer behavior.

Credit: Andrii Vodolazhskyi/Shutterstock

Key Takeaways
  • A new study suggests older Americans are more knowledgeable about COVID-19 than younger demographics.
  • Respondents who scored higher in knowledge about COVID also tended to follow behavioral recommendations better than others.
  • The study was conducted early in the pandemic, but the central finding may still hold up.

While the stereotype these days is that young people are taking the pandemic more seriously than their elders, a new study out of Michigan State University and published in JMR Public Health andSurveillance finds that, at the beginning of the pandemic, older Americans were much more knowledgeable about the virus and followed recommendations more stringently than younger generations.

The study asked 1070 participants a series of questions relating to COVID-19’s characteristics, transmission, and prevention. Answers to these questions were used to gauge a participant’s knowledge about the novel coronavirus and scored on a scale of 0-12. A following set of questions focused on behavior, including if the participants went to events with large groups of people or wore a mask outside.

As you might expect, a higher knowledge score correlated to following public health recommendations at the time. However, the breakdown of the data may prove surprising.

Baby Boomers scored higher than any other generation, with each subsequent group scoring less than the last. Younger participants were more likely to go out with a mask on (this was before masks were recommended), go to an event with 50 or more people, and hoard supplies. Participants earning more money scored higher in knowledge than those making less, and self-reporting Democrats scored higher than Republicans. Women and those with a college education also earned high scores.

Now, there are a couple of caveats that should be mentioned. The first is that this survey was released on March 17, 2020. At the time, masks were not recommended by the CDC. How much deciding to wear a mask relates to a lack of knowledge, being ahead of the curve, or following other advice sources than the Federal Government is up for debate.

Secondly, the questions used in this study were not validated, meaning that they were not analyzed to assure that a given answer correlates to an exact outcome. In this case, that a wrong answer directly relates to a lack of understanding of how COVID-19 works is undetermined.

The validation issue was caused by the “fast-moving nature of the pandemic response in the United States.” Study author Dr. John Clements argues that we can take away “face value” information despite this and other potential issues with the methodology. He explains that understanding the differences in understanding between different demographics can help inform policy and information campaigns going forward:

“These differences appear to have prevented a coordinated effort at slowing the spread of the pandemic in the United States in the early days of the pandemic. Ignoring official recommendations for crowd avoidance, the use of medical supplies, and purchasing behaviors that signal hoarding of goods, does not bode well for efforts to contain the spread of the virus and limit exposure to vulnerable populations. Without a coordinated national response, it is likely that the United States will experience a longer, more drawn out battle than if such coordination would occur. In addition, it is important for future waves of COVID-19 that we consider implementing specific policies and programs to target groups of people who have been unequally affected by the pandemic.”

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A better understanding of how COVID spreads and the latest recommendations to battle it will likely prove vital in attempts to control its spread. According to this study’s findings, there is at least a passing connecting between having that understanding and personal behavior. Let us hope that, in the future, people will be informed enough to make better choices.


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