Johannesburg – The novel coronavirus has left billions of people feeling mentally and physically older. Experts say even teenagers are not immune to “Covid ageing”.
They attribute the phenomenon to a lack of physical activity, isolation from loved ones and heightened stress, anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the global health crisis.
In South Africa, where despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement this week that the country would be moving to level 1 of the lockdown, mental health practitioners warn many people are neither feeling nor looking their age.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone – young or old, wherever they live in the world,” Parktown North therapist Michael
Kallenbach says. “Any time there is additional or unexpected stress put on someone’s life, this can have an impact on the ageing process.
“Covid-19 has taken a toll on everyone… When things go wrong, besides getting or dealing with the virus, that puts additional pain on the process of getting old, or just feeling old.”
Johannesburg clinical psychologist Michael Sissison agrees, adding it’s not as simple as grey hairs, wrinkles or people having a few bad days. “The danger is that you can lose confidence in your own mind and begin to doubt your body,” he says.
While Sissison cautions against generalising, saying each person reacts differently, he says Covid ageing begins in the mind. “We have all been faced with stressors in our lives over many years, but Covid-19 is a major one. It’s new, unfamiliar, scary and creates uncertainty, so, of course, people are going to be thrown psychologically.”
This usually begins to manifest physical symptoms. “The circumstances can make a person more prone to aching shoulders, a sore back and other kinds of ailments,” Sissison says.
“The conditions can exacerbate or speed up underlying or more serious ailments, not only for older people but even for youngsters.”
Kallenbach says that being confined to home for long periods has left many people inactive, low on vitality and out of shape, accelerating ageing.
“Besides the fact that regular exercise helps the immune system, and this is important during the crisis, it is important for everyone to look after themselves,” he says.
Sissison says the benefits of exercise go a long way towards alleviating mental pressure and keeps people feeling young, healthy and positive.
“Physical exercise is certainly a way to control the ageing process. You take your car for regular services so your body deserves the same treatment.”
Mental health practitioners also warn that the constant news of people losing their lives to Covid-19 and time spent in isolation could weaken and age the mind. This has a ripple effect on the body.
“When the unexpected, like death or loneliness, occurs on top of dealing with so much unknown and navigating around a crisis that shows no sign of abating, then this can all add to the ageing factor,” says Kallenbach.
The good news is that its disastrous effects can be managed. “Covid-19 has forced people to slow down, to reflect on their rushed life, and some people have taken it on in a positive way,” says Sissison.
He urged people to take on the new normal with positivity and adjust their lives accordingly. “Covid-19 gives you an opportunity to find new ways of living and relating to people and not taking things for granted. People need to keep generating or else you stagnate and ultimately die psychologically too.”
He suggested people stick to a routine, practise meditation and yoga, exercise and connect with loved ones. “What is important is how people accept and integrate, not deny, this new reality that will be around for a while. Be positive, count your blessings every day and don’t complain.”