Too Young To Feel So Old

Covid-19: After nearly two years spent in a computer crouch, my favorite sweater and I have gone fuzzy.

I was 43 when the pandemic began. I am now 60.

That would seem to defy the laws of physics and common sense, but the rate of aging is not so simple as it was once thought to be. And pandemic burnout, though not a condition listed in Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, is a real thing, a sapping of spirit, 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 for those affected by the upheaval and isolation of remote life.

Others have noted wrinkled skin, graying hair, creaky joints and a chronic blah feeling described by the psychologist Adam Grant as “languishing.”

For many people who have had Covid-19, the arduous recovery has left them feeling “older than they are,” said Alicia Arbaje, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. For others, there is an impression of being thrown off course.

“It’s the sense of disconnect from your purpose: ‘Why am I even here?’” said Dr. Arbaje, who specializes in geriatric medicine. “Once you begin to lose touch with that, it creates a sense of chronic stress, which can directly accelerate aging.”

At her workplace, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Dr. Arbaje has noticed what she called a “moral distress” among her colleagues and herself. It manifests itself in weight gain, dark circles under the eyes, hair loss, a bone-deep tiredness.

“It’s this lack of brightness,” Dr. Arbaje said. “The full extent of their person isn’t showing. They’re weary.”

Partly because of my job as a writer, which can leave me sedentary even in the best of times, I’ve spent nearly two years sitting hunched at my desk. Sometimes I switch it up and take my laptop to the couch. Even as thoughts of exercise pester 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 mail and “PBS NewsHour.” My favorite sweater, so proud and fresh in 2019, has gone limp and fuzzy. Now I call it my house sweater.

I couldn’t bring myself to join the Peloton craze or the running boom, and my aerobic capacity has gone way down. While carrying my young son up a hill, I got so winded that I considered driving myself to the hospital.

I described my pandemic rut to Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and gerontologist, mentioning that it had left me feeling like a 60-year-old. Dr. Dychtwald, who is 71, did not take kindly to that remark, saying it showed “a profound level of ageism.”

There are plenty of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who lead active lives, he told me, and they haven’t allowed the pandemic to dampen their spirits or keep them from exercising.

Dr. Dychtwald is part of this group. In addition to running his research and consulting company, Age Wave, with his wife, Maddy, he has gone swimming every day during the pandemic. He and his wife have also adopted an anti-inflammatory diet.

“And I practice yoga every day,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged the pandemic has been hard on everyone.

“I do agree with you that we have all aged,” Dr. Dychtwald said. “We’ve all gotten older during Covid in dramatic ways.” 

I asked him if he had any ideas about 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 aging. This will pass.”

The perspective I lacked, he suggested, may come along by the time I’m actually 60.

“Older people are more inclined to feel gratitude for what they have experienced and what they have,” Dr. Dychtwald said. “Emotional intelligence rises as we age.”

The other day, with some effort, I laced up my running shoes and went for a jog. But can you really call it a jog when you go 10 blocks before the fire in your lungs makes you pull up heaving? After two years in a computer crouch, moving upright felt odd, 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 into alignment, it’s a matter of letting it do what it knows how to do,” she said, “which is regenerate and recover.”

But she had an unsettling caveat: “Now whether Covid made a permanent impact and really shaved off a few years, it’s hard to tell. We won’t know, maybe for a few decades.”



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