Contracting COVID-19, lifestyle and social connections may play a role

July 09, 2020

Summary: Current research indicates that unhealthy lifestyle choices, including smoking and lack of exercise, along with emotional stressors like social isolation and interpersonal conflicts are important risk factors for developing upper respiratory infections. It is possible these same factors also increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Unhealthy lifestyle choices, like smoking and avoiding exercise, are known risk factors for certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. A growing body of research reveals that these risk factors and a lack of supportive social connections can also increase the risk of developing respiratory infections, like the common cold and influenza.

A new article published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science explores how lifestyle, social, and psychological factors also may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.

"We know little about why some of the people exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are more likely to develop the disease than others," said Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the authors on the paper. "Our research on psychological factors that predict susceptibility to other respiratory viruses may provide clues to help identify factors that matter for COVID-19."

Through a series of studies spanning more than 30 years, Cohen and his team examined how lifestyle, social, and psychological factors affect whether or not healthy adults exposed to respiratory viruses become ill. This work focused on eight viral strains that cause the common cold and two that cause influenza.

"In our work, we intentionally exposed people to cold and influenza viruses and studied whether psychological and social factors predict how effective the immune system is in suppressing infection, or preventing or mitigating the severity of illness," said Cohen. "We found a strong correlation between social and psychological stressors and increased susceptibility."

Intriguingly, the researchers also found that social integration and social support offer a protective shield against respiratory infection and illness.

Until now, the only tactics to slow the spread of coronavirus have been behavioral changes that reduce the probability of being exposed to the virus, such as stay-at-home measures and social-distancing requirements. These same behaviors, however, are often associated with interpersonal stressors, like loneliness, loss of employment, and familial conflict. According to the researchers, these stressors may be powerful predictors of how a person will respond if exposed to coronavirus because of the stressors' direct physiological effects on immunity and their psychological factors, which are thought to have their influence through the mind-body connection.

Cohen's work demonstrates that psychological and social stressors are associated with an overproduction of proinflammatory chemicals known as cytokines in response to cold and influenza viruses. In turn, this excess of inflammation was associated with an increased risk of becoming ill.

Similarly, research on COVID-19 has shown that producing an excess of proinflammatory cytokines is associated with more severe COVID-19 infections, suggesting that a stress-triggered excessive cytokine response might also contribute to excessive inflammation and symptoms in COVID-19 patients.

Cohen and his colleagues acknowledge that, as of now, there are no firmly established links between behavioral and psychological factors and the risk for disease and death in persons exposed to the corona virus that causes COVID-19. However, their prior body of research may be relevant to the current pandemic because, they note, the most potent predictors of disease, interpersonal and economic stressors, are the types of stressors that are commonly experienced among those who are isolated or in quarantine.

"If you have a diverse social network (social integration), you tend to take better care of yourself (no smoking, moderate drinking, more sleep and exercise)," said Cohen. "Also if people perceive that those in their social network will help them during a period of stress or adversity (social support) then it attenuates the effect of the stressor and is less impactful on their health."
APS is the leading international organization dedicated to advancing scientific psychology across disciplinary and geographic borders. Our members provide a richer understanding of the world through their research, teaching, and application of psychological science. We are passionate about supporting psychological scientists in these pursuits, which we do by sharing cutting-edge research across all areas of the field through our journals and conventions; promoting the integration of scientific perspectives within psychological science and with related disciplines; fostering global connections among our members; engaging the public with our research to promote broader understanding and awareness of psychological science; and advocating for increased support for psychological science in the public policy arena.

Launched by the Association for Psychological Science in 2006, Perspectives on Psychological Science is a bimonthly journal publishing an eclectic mix of provocative reports and articles, including broad integrative reviews, overviews of research programs, meta-analyses, theoretical statements, and articles on topics such as the philosophy of science, opinion pieces about major issues in the field, autobiographical reflections of senior members of the field, and even occasional humorous essays and sketches. For a copy of this article, "Psychosocial Vulnerabilities to Upper Respiratory Infectious Illness: Implications for Susceptibility to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)," and access to other research in Perspectives on Psychological Science, contact Cohen, S., et. al, (2020) Psychosocial Vulnerabilities to Upper Respiratory Infectious Illness: Implications for Susceptibility to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Association for Psychological Science

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to