I was 43 when the pandemic started. I’m 60 now.
That seems to defy the laws of physics and common sense, but the rate of aging isn’t as simple as once thought. And pandemic burnout, while not a condition listed in Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, is a real thing, an undermining of the mind, if not the body.
An article published last month in the scientific journal Nature suggested that the pandemic has accelerated the aging process, not only for the millions who have contracted the virus, but also those affected by the upheaval and isolation of life at a distance.
Others have wrinkled skin, graying hair, creaky joints and a chronic? blah feeling described by the psychologist Adam Grant as “wasting”.
For many people who’ve had Covid-19, the sluggish recovery has left them feeling “older than they are,” said Alicia Arbaje, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. For others, there is the impression of getting off course.
“It’s the feeling of being detached from your purpose, ‘Why am I here anyway?'” said Dr. Arbaje, who specializes in geriatric medicine. “Once you start losing touch with that, it creates a feeling of chronic stress, which can directly accelerate aging.”
At her workplace, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Dr. Arbaje noted what she called a “moral need” among her colleagues and herself. It manifests itself in weight gain, dark circles under the eyes, hair loss, a bone-deep fatigue.
“It’s this lack of clarity,” said Dr. Arbaye. “The full extent of their person cannot be seen. They are tired.”
My job as a writer, which allows me to lead a sedentary life even at the best of times, has kept me huddled at my desk for nearly two years. Sometimes I turn it on and take my laptop to the couch. Even when thoughts of exercise bother me, I find I can’t pull myself away from the screen.
My world has shrunk in the two years I’ve been working from home. I find myself looking forward to the email and “PBS NewsHour”. My favorite sweater, so proud and fresh in 2019, has gone floppy and fuzzy. Now I call it my house jersey.
I couldn’t bring myself to join the Peloton craze or the running boom, and my aerobic capacity has plummeted. While carrying my son up a hill, I became so breathless that I considered driving to the hospital myself.
I described my pandemic rut to Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and gerontologist, and said it made me feel like a 60-year-old. dr. Dychtwald, who is 71, was not kind to that comment, saying it showed “a deep level of ageism”.
There are plenty of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who lead active lives, he told me, and they have not allowed the pandemic to dampen their mood or prevent them from exercising.
dr. Dychtwald is part of this group. In addition to running his research and consulting firm Age Wave, he and his wife Maddy swam every day during the pandemic. He and his wife have also been on an anti-inflammatory diet.
“And I practice yoga every day,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged that the pandemic has been tough on everyone.
“I agree with you that we’ve all gotten older,” said Dr. Dychtwald. “We have all aged in dramatic ways during Covid.”
I asked him if he had any idea why I felt so tired all the time and couldn’t bring myself to exercise.
“It’s probably depression,” he said. “You associate that with getting older. This will pass.”
The perspective I was missing, he suggested, could come by the time I’m actually 60.
“Older people are more likely to feel gratitude for what they have experienced and what they have,” said Dr. Dychtwald. “Emotional intelligence rises as we age.”
Recently, with some difficulty, I put on my running shoes and went for a jog. But can you really call it a jog if you go 10 blocks before the fire in your lungs sends you heaving? After two years squatting at a computer, moving upright felt strange and unnatural, and I wondered if my decline was irreversible.
dr. Arbaje, of Johns Hopkins, told me that was not the case.
“As long as we can get the body back in line, it’s a matter of letting it do what it can do,” she said, “that’s regenerating and restoring.”
But she had one troubling caveat: “Whether Covid has had a lasting impact and really shaved off for a few years is hard to say. We won’t know, maybe for a few decades.”