Here’s what’s happening to our skin, hair, joints, and brains in isolation — and what we can do about it.

By Kylie Gilbert
Jan 28, 2021 @ 11:39 am
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No, It's Not In Your Head, the Pandemic Really Is Aging Us Faster
Credit: Sergey Filimonov/Stocksy/Adobe Stock

You're in a Zoom meeting when all of a sudden you catch a glimpse of yourself from a new angle and think, Have my undereyes always looked this papery? When you get up from your desk to maybe finally have a sip of water today, you wonder, Since when do I have the knees of an 80-year-old? Later, when you run to the store to pick up more wine, you forget your wallet at home and wonder, What is up with my memory? 

If a version of this sounds familiar, welcome to the club. Many of us (InStyle staffers included) have recently been pondering why we feel as if we've aged at least two to three years during the pandemic, which, at present, has been going on for just about 11 months. So, we got some answers.

First, the bad news: It's not in your head. "People are not just feeling like they're aging faster, it's been scientifically proven," says Sunitha Posina, M.D. an internal medicine physician in Stony Brook, New York who worked on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good news? You can do something about it — beyond a trip to your derm's office for Botox.

Your skin and hair probably really are aging at warp speed (sorry).

You know those before-and-after photos that show how dramatically presidents age when they're in office from the stress of the job? That's basically all of us after 2020.

"There is no question that this pandemic has added years to my skin and hair," dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D, associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine tells me. Not exactly encouraging news coming from a top derm. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Unsurprisingly, it all starts with stress, which causes cortisol (the 'stress hormone') to rise and sets off an unpleasant chain of events. "Cortisol is proinflammatory, meaning it will make acne and any other skin condition worse, but it also accelerates aging and can cause hair loss and hair thinning," she explains.

"The lack of sleep and doom-scrolling before bed are major players in this process, too," Dr. Gohara says. "When we sleep less, we have less melatonin, which has antioxidant properties protective against skin aging, and our collagen has less time to repair and rebuild — that's why it is called beauty sleep: this happens at night! — and our skin cells don't regenerate as quickly." (And in case you missed it, 70 million Americans are dealing with legitimate sleep deprivation right now, so there's a good chance that's you.)

And what happens to your skin when you lose collagen? You can expect more fine lines and wrinkles, loss of volume and general skin bounciness, as well as puffy eyes, says Dr. Posina. A.k.a. textbook "signs of aging".

Bottom line: While our bodies are great at withstanding occasional bouts of stress, we're not as good at enduring it for months on end, when it begins to have a cumulative effect, Dr. Posina explains. When cortisol is building up for days, weeks, and months it can impact pretty much every aspect of your life, including your sleep cycles, your dietary choices (higher sugar intake is also known to cause wrinkles, the docs add), and even weaken your immune system. And this isn't even touching on the ways skin aging can be sped up by alcohol, which many have turned to to cope with stress during the pandemic.

So, yeah, it's no surprise that you're seeing the effects when you look in the mirror (or computer screen).

And your body is ‘keeping score’ of the stress and trauma you experience.

So we know stress = bad for our crow's feet, but if you've never thought about it in terms of actually aging your brain and body, we have some more bad news.

"Constant prolonged periods of stress have been shown to accelerate aging. We're coming up on a year now, and that's a long time for someone to be in chronic stress," Dr. Posina says. And even those who came out of 2020 relatively unscathed are still experiencing this to some degree, simply from the daily stress of wondering whether you're going to get sick, if you're wearing your mask properly, and so on, explains Dr. Posina. (That's not to mention the seemingly never-ending election stress we just came off of.)

Quick science lesson: We have things called telomeres, which are the caps at the ends of our chromosomes that protect us from aging, Dr. Posina explains. These telomeres naturally get shorter as we age, but research has shown that women with higher levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average of about a decade of additional aging compared to "low stress women''. (There's also an established link between depression and accelerated aging, which is even more significant in those who have experienced trauma.)

While your body's biological age might seem kind of abstract, there's a reason you feel older too. "Anxiety is like running a marathon," explains psychiatrist Jessi Gold, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. "Our bodies have been in fight or flight mode, with our heart rates pumping trying to predict and run from threat for months, and we are so tired – and so are our muscles. It's no wonder we feel older and worn out."

Here’s why you suddenly feel like you have the mobility of a senior citizen.

"If you feel like your knees are aging, it's probably happened!" Dr. Posina tells me about my body and joints feeling generally more creaky and worn down. Great.

It's not hard to guess why. Many of us are moving less now that walking from our apartments to the subway or from our houses to the car has been taken out of the equation. And moving less while sitting more (usually with crappy posture in chairs that aren't ergonomic) has an impact on our joints, says Brian A. Cole, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Englewood Spine Associates, who adds that complaints of neck and low back pain have been on the rise in his practice.

On top of it, we're — surprise! — carrying our stress in places we shouldn't. "When you experience high stress levels, muscles become restricted and shoulders tend to round or hunch forward. This leaves you feeling like you have a knot in your neck and actual pain," Dr. Cole says. And there's really nothing like a hunched back to make you feel like you have aged far beyond your years, is there?

Here’s what you can actually do about it.

The good news is, we aren't passive passengers on this aging train. "I definitely think that lifestyle changes can decelerate skin aging and accelerate skin health," Dr. Gohara says.

The same goes for your DNA. "You can offset a lot of the damage you've done, including lengthening your telomeres, by focusing on things that have been proven to balance your stress hormones: eating healthier, meditation, yoga, engaging your senses with a walk," Dr. Posina says. "It's never too late."

So there you have it, folks. At the end of the day, the answer to our anti-aging woes seems almost too simple: If 2021 is the year we want to actually look our age (or, hey, maybe younger) we need to get better at managing our stress, whether it's finally getting a therapist, making a resolution to sleep more, doom-scrolling less, or moving our bodies from time to time. And with that, I'm closing Twitter and going for a walk.