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Older adults have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re at a far higher risk of experiencing complications from the virus, and many have suffered from the mental health effects of isolation from families and friends. About 25 percent of people in their 60s reported having symptoms of anxiety in the previous seven days, for instance, in a February Household Pulse survey by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the Census Bureau.
But the older population has held up remarkably well compared with the population at large, experts say. In fact, adults ages 18 to 29 were far more likely to report symptoms of anxiety in the survey: Almost half — 47 percent — did so.
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“You would think that older people would do worse than younger people mentally,” says Dilip Jeste, M.D., director of the University of California San Diego Center for Healthy Aging. “But research has shown the exact opposite.”
A separate June survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of 5,470 community-dwelling adults across the U.S. found that those age 65 and older were significantly less likely to report symptoms of anxiety (6.2 percent) and depression (5.8 percent) than adults ages 18 to 24 (49.1 percent and 52.3 percent, respectively).
Older adults were also less likely to report having had suicidal thoughts in the 30 days before completing the survey — 2 percent of those 65 and up versus 25.5 percent of the youngest group.
Ipsit Vahia, M.D., medical director of Geriatric Psychiatry Outpatient Services at McLean Hospital and of the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry in Belmont, Massachusetts, has reviewed a number of studies from around the world — including the aforementioned CDC report — and found “an uncannily consistent finding”: Older adults seem to have experienced the lowest rates of negative mental health impact, at least during the early stages of the pandemic.
Why resilience may come with age
What is behind this psychological strength? It may be that as years go by, we learn coping strategies, says Erin Emery-Tiburcio, Ph.D., codirector of the Center for Excellence in Aging at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “These are folks who have lived many more decades and seen and experienced a lot of things, and have figured out how to get through difficult times,” she surmises. “They are able to get less frustrated with the day-to-day, because they have a bigger picture of life to look at: ‘Yeah, I remember having gone through this before, and it’s going to be okay.’ ”
Wisdom also may grow with age, says Jeste, who believes that wisdom can manifest itself as qualities associated with resilience, such as control over one’s emotions, the ability to self-reflect, and the ability to accept different perspectives.
There’s also compassion, notes Jeste: “If I see somebody who is sad and help that person, that is compassion.” Indeed, research that Jeste has conducted, published in a 2020 issue of Aging and Mental Health, has found that wisdom and loneliness trend in opposite directions. “People who have wisdom aren’t lonely — and that’s especially true for the compassion component,” he says. “If you call somebody and reach out to them, the other person is grateful and you, in turn, feel good about that. You’re also establishing a stronger social connection and don’t feel as lonely, so you’re getting a psychological benefit.”