By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
COVID not only kills, it can also age us.
No one has said, “I look younger recently.” In fact, many have discovered more wrinkles erupting on their faces, their skin looks terrible, and they feel much older in the last six months than in 2019 and other years. But the more serious concern is, the pandemic can age our brain.
The stress of being locked down and in isolation, job and business losses, our inability to pay our bills, uncertainty, the anguish parents and students face about attending schools, and the threat of being infected by COVID, ourselves and loved ones, have taken a toll on us.
The CDC released a report that said 11% of Americans seriously considered suicide in June. So many have suffered from anxiety and depression during the pandemic, according to CBS.
“Last year at this time, about one in 12 American adults reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder. That has risen to more than one in three today.”
A 2018 study by Amsterdam University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that the DNA of people with major depression is older than people who didn’t have depression, by eight months. Other studies have also found that emotional distress can speed up cellular aging.
“The cells not only shrink, but lose their ability to divide further,” stated an article in Psychology Today by Christopher Bergland.
Our biological vs. chronological clock
There is an epigenetic or biological clock in our body, according to scientists. Doctors call it an aging clock. Biological clock is different from your chronological clock, which is your chronological age.
Your biological clock reveals how you treat your body and how you live your life. It might not be your actual chronological age. It can be younger or older.
Some of my friends said they have great genes from their parents so they assume they will have a long life.
“My dad lived until 90-something. My mom was in that realm, too.” Yes, you might be lucky to have inherited some of your family’s longevity. However, if you have a reckless lifestyle, including drinking and smoking, overweight with an inactive body, your bad habits are likely to outdo those good genes.
Epigenetic researchers have found that “our own genes react to our behavior,” wrote Catherine Shanahan, M.D., author of “Deep Nutrition.
Some think that biological age has to do with your looks. If you have a youthful face with fewer wrinkles and age spots, you would score high on your biological clock. Not true. Does it occur to you that some people might be fighting their wrinkles with regular botox injections and applying anti-wrinkle creams?
As we age, our brain is far more significant than our face. Questions about our lifestyle, nutrition, genetics, and what kind of long-term diseases we have, affect our health, mind, and appearance.
The biological clock test
A former high school classmate messaged us on WhatsApp with a test on our biological age. Some of my former classmates were thrilled that they were at least more than a decade younger than their chronological age. They have done a good job taking care of themselves. In general, we assume that women more than men yearn to have a youthful look when they get older.
Not quite. Men are vain creatures, too. Try this flattery on men and you’ll see their smiling faces.
Is the biological test thorough?
The test is more for fun. It includes questions such as how you view stress.
How much do you sleep and exercise? How often do you poop? How many times do you eat during the day? Do you smoke or drink alcohol? Do you put on sunscreen or avoid the sun, or if you drink coffee?
I question its accuracy because it doesn’t ask questions about our blood pressure, our strength, weight and height, and the kind of exercises we do. It certainly overlooks the brain factor. While physical workout is beneficial for both our mind and body, we should also practice mental activities. Many of my friends like to do crossword puzzles. And my Chinese and Jewish friends like to play mahjong. Those games challenge our brain to be fit and sharp.
What keeps me young is my love for learning. Everyday, I am committed to learn new things to challenge my brain.
The test did inspire me to take action on my environment. One question asked if I live in a place with little or lots of pollution. Well, I live and work in Chinatown-International District (CID). Being next to the freeway and also full of restaurants, the CID is one of the two worst polluted spots in Seattle.
I cannot change my current environment, but the reckoning is, I can do something about it.
To compensate for the lack of fresh air, I stroll around Lake Washington Boulevard near Seward Park on weekday mornings whenever possible.
When I did the biological test, I wasn’t sure how to respond to one of the questions. “How long can I stand on one foot?” In yoga terms, it’s called vrikshasana or tree pose. My initial response was 30 seconds. Later, I tested myself by standing with one foot in front and one near the back, facing forward. Wow! I couldn’t believe it. I held that pose for more than one minute.
Full disclosure: I took yoga classes for about three years a decade ago. But I haven’t practiced since I quit the class. And I am in my late 60s.
A long life is meaningless if you have dementia and are inflicted with other illnesses, and thus, unable to live a full life.
So attaining longevity might not be the right goal. The right goal is to pursue health, financial independence, and balance so you have the freedom to enjoy what you want even when you live to an old age.
The definition of health is not confined to just physical, it is mental as well as your emotional wellbeing. Maintaining all three aspects of our wellbeing require effort, patience, and willpower.
If you are overweight and have been for a while, it takes time and discipline to lose those pounds. You cannot expect to lose 10 pounds in a week. If you don’t feel like getting up every morning, is there something you can plan the day(s) before so you look forward to the next day? Talk to someone who is willing to listen so you can unload your burden. Remember, you don’t have to suffer alone. I always feel better after I discuss my problems with my family and friends. First, they offer different perspectives. My husband often laughs my problems away. I feel so much lighter afterwards.
Enduring the pandemic
It’s not easy to survive a pandemic, especially since I still have an organization to run and newspapers to publish. And business has been tumbling since March. The trouble is, there is no crystal ball to show us how long the pandemic will last. More than 30 (part-time and full-time) employees rely on me. That’s a heavy duty. Thousands of readers look forward to reading our news online and in print every week. And that’s our reward to motivate us, no matter how big the hurdle.
I did well on the biological clock test. My score said that I am two decades younger than my chronological age. Does it mean I have handled the pandemic crisis well? I don’t know. However, this is what I can share with you.
In April, I thought we had to shut down. Just as we felt that we were on the edge of a cliff, miracles happened in May and June. Some good Samaritans called, “What do you need?” “What can we do to help?” “We are interested in placing ad(s) in both the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post.”
While I never expected them to care, these people came to us at a critical juncture. They didn’t know they saved us from drowning while we fought for our last breath. They have no idea how they made us feel. More than grateful and amazing.
The lesson is, you can never predict what’s going to happen. And just when you think the horrible is emerging, hope smashes right in, not only once, but many times.
The reality is: The pandemic will not vanish soon. The worst is not over. Brace for more misfortune. So what are you going to do to make yourself feel better in hard times? Is there anything you can prepare or not?
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.