A funny thing happens as we age: We start to feel younger than we are. Most people 40 and older, researchers have found, feel about 20 percent younger than their actual age. At least that was true before the COVID-19 pandemic struck — it appears we’re not feeling so youthful these days.
The French call it coup de vieux — suddenly feeling old. An illness, or prolonged periods of heightened stress, can take a toll on your physical and mental health and add years to your subjective age. I think about friends who had to risk their lives on the job these past 18-plus months — front-line workers, schoolteachers, doctors, nurses, hospital staff. How could they not feel worn down?
In an April survey conducted by The Harris Poll and ATI Physical Therapy, 46 percent of Americans said they had more aches and pains during the pandemic; 55 percent felt they’d aged faster than at any other time in their lives. Gyms closed, our social worlds shrank, and we were often cooped up indoors. It’s no wonder we all felt older, and that includes adults 18 to 54, who reported more increases in aches and pains than those 55-plus. (Perhaps the agony of staying put is harder on the young.)
The pandemic has aged us the way the presidency ages our national leaders. Fade to gray, right before your eyes. I felt this myself, and even more so when I read sobering statistics such as those released by the Centers for Disease Control in July showing that life expectancy in the United States declined by a year and a half for the population as a whole during the pandemic — from 78.8 in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020 — and cut nearly two years off male life expectancy. These are the lowest numbers since 2003.
Millennials aged practically overnight, the way my dad must have when he enlisted in his late teens in the Army Air Corps to fight in World War II. You become an adult instantly when you’re risking your life for your country. Or when you’re grappling with holding down a job and keeping your children safe in a pandemic, without child care or backup support. Young people 18-24 also struggled, and reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than older age groups, according to the CDC. Even my grandchildren, still in elementary school, seem older than their age in some ways, perhaps because they spent such a big chunk of their childhoods locked indoors with adults who were sleep deprived and on high alert.
“The pandemic has been something of an existential experience for many people,” says Tom Meuser, founding director of the Center for Excellence in Aging and Health at the University of New England in Portland, Maine. “My students and I have been hosting an online support group for older adults since the start. I remember one of the men, a very vibrant guy in his early 70s saying, ‘This is the first time I really feel old.’”
My baby boomer friends apologize for being slower, less sharp these days, and it’s not just because we are certifiably old. It’s what excess carbs, alcohol, and feelings of loneliness — which affected all age groups during lockdown — can do to you. Loneliness is not only psychologically painful; it also puts us at an elevated risk for coronary heart disease and stroke. Jessica Lahey, author of The Addiction Inoculation, a book about her personal battle with alcoholism and advice for parents on preventing substance abuse in children, was “so grateful to be sober before the pandemic started,” she told me in an e-mail. “I drank to control my anxiety and there was plenty of anxiety to go around.” Lots of women, she says, drink for the same reason.
But feeling younger than the age on your driver’s license isn’t self-deception or your mind playing tricks on you. It’s actually beneficial and can act as a buffer against the effects of stress and old age. Studies have found that those who perceive themselves as younger have greater well-being, may live longer, and have better cognitive function. Conversely, people who feel older than they are have an increased likelihood of hospitalization and also a higher risk of dementia.
There’s no turning back the clock, but there are ways to recharge physically and mentally. “We need to oil our wheels, so to speak,” psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, cofounder of The Happiness Studies Academy, said in an email. “Challenge yourself. Cognitively, by learning new things, or delving more deeply into what you already know. Physically, by exercising. The longer we remain sedentary, the more time it will take us to bounce back. So better to start sooner than later.”
Ben-Shahar also recommends taking the focus off yourself by asking what you can do for others. “Acts of kindness are a major energy boost,” he said. That’s true whether you’re helping a neighbor, shopping for an older relative, or donating to a family in need in your town. They also have a ripple effect that’s powerful, says Cody Foss, Connecticut regional manager of Ben’s Bells Project, a nonprofit that teaches kids, adults, and communities about the positive effects of intentional kindness. When you act with kindness toward someone, you feel better, that person feels better, and even a bystander watching the interaction gets a positive boost, Foss says.
And don’t forget to be kind to yourself — by not falling into the ageism trap, with all its negative stereotypes. “Ageism is rampant in our country,” Meuser says. And it’s often something we direct at ourselves — self-ageism, where we pre-judge our capabilities based on a number. There’s nothing wrong with thinking of yourself as older, he says, unless it’s holding you back from doing things you love and enjoy, and are capable of doing.
Marianne Jacobbi is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to email@example.com.