I spent most of last week fruitlessly grilling anti-aging experts in search of what I had assumed would be a simple number: In 21 months and counting, how much has the pandemic aged us?
I was no ingenue when this thing struck. But now, between my embrace of the comfort trend, and rapid-onset, home-office-induced hunching, I look like a sixth-grader who’s been crudely aged for the school play.
And that’s just the part that shows. A new study finding the nation’s blood pressure has increased during the pandemic can’t be a good sign of what else is going on beneath the surface — even in people who’ve been fortunate to avoid COVID itself, and not had important medical care delayed.
As the third year of the pandemic looms, lots of people are “joking” about feeling older. But the question of indirect health effects is also of enormous interest to scientists.
“Researchers will be studying it for decades,” S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me. But as things stand now, there are no peer-reviewed studies to put a number on how many days — or years — of life the pandemic may be robbing.
In fact, this is as far as the president of the American Federation for Aging Research, the Mayo Clinic’s James Kirkland, would go: “The way people have been living during the pandemic could fuel the fundamental aging process.”
Could? Doctor, have you seen the nation’s hair?
Leonard Guarente, director of the Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at MIT — and the chief scientist of a company that sells anti-aging products, Elysium Health — was willing to go slightly further.
“The prediction would be that the rate of aging has been higher during the pandemic,” he said.
I’m not sure why I was eager to attach a number to the situation. How can you measure something that is infinite, anyway?
By the end of last week I’d pretty much given up on my quest and turned my attention to browsing unaffordable real estate listings, but it turns out my question has been answered.
Not by the world of science, but by an even more authoritative source: a market research firm working on behalf of a client that sells hair dye.
In a survey for Garnier aimed at learning how women (but not men, because, of course) were feeling about their “quarantine grays,” the marketing company, OnePoll, asked women how much they had aged in 2020.
The average? Three point six three years. Call it four. I read it, and felt . . . let down. I would have found twisted relief if it had been more — even though four years isn’t nothing, exactly.
It’s enough time for a human being to be born, learn passable conversational English, and age out of Baby Gap. A green anole lizard can live its whole life in four years. Drinking straws can go from being the chief environmental villain to never being mentioned again. In four years you could go from being a nobody to starring in a revenge song by Taylor Swift.
But the pandemic is bigger than even Taylor Swift, and I was relieved, when I conducted my own poll, that many people were equally underwhelmed by the four-year average.
“Are you kidding me?” a colleague barked when I told her the number? “I’m already dead.”
Robin Flint, a piano tuner from Hull, feels she has aged 20 years. Prepandemic, when she joyfully went from home to home working on the beautiful instruments, she felt like a woman in her 40s, even though she was already past 60.
But the pandemic temporarily shut her business, and now the ongoing financial strain, the social isolation, and the fear of contracting COVID — or passing it along to her 85-year-old mother — have combined to make Flint feel two decades older.
“I used to say just my knees feel my age, but now all of me feels 63,” she said. “It’s challenging to feel optimistic.”
Meanwhile, even as the pandemic triggers millennials to start writing their wills, Loren Larsen, 45, a vice president with Compass, the real estate firm, says she’s actually feeling more vibrant than she did in March 2020 (not a typo).
“In some ways I got time back,” she said. “COVID gave me permission to start saying ‘no’ to things.”