COVID-19 and Psychological Distress: Racial Differences Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults

Background and Objectives

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted older adults and Black individuals. Research has focused on physical outcomes, with less attention to the psychological effects of COVID-19. The objective of this study was to examine the interplay between perceptions of the COVID-19 outbreak as a threat to one’s day-to-day life, race, and psychological distress among middle-aged and older men and women.

Research Design and Methods

Analyses were conducted on a subsample of self-identified non-Latino Whites and Black individuals aged 50 and older (N = 3,834) from the American Trends Panel. Psychological distress was assessed with 5 items adapted from the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7. Perceived COVID-19 day-to-day threat was assessed with a single question. Negative binomial regressions tested the study aim.


Perceptions of COVID-19 day-to-day threat were positively associated with psychological distress. Black individuals reported lower distress than Whites. Regardless of gender, greater perceptions of COVID-19 day-to-day threats were associated with greater distress among both White respondents and Black respondents. However, this association was weaker among Black respondents than White respondents. Among men only, the association between COVID-19 day-to-day threat and distress varied by race, patterned similarly to the race differences identified in the total sample. This association did not vary by race among women.

Discussion and Implications

This study contributes to the emerging literature focused on older adults and COVID-19 related stressors and psychological distress. An intersectional lens shows how structural oppression may shape perceptions of the pandemic. Future work should consider coexisting intersections in marginalized identities and mental health during COVID-19.

The full study is available in The Gerontologist.