Do you look in the mirror and feel dismayed that you appear to have dramatically aged since March? If so, you are not alone.

Millions of people across the world admit that they look ‘at least’ five years older.

There is, of course, a good-humoured consensus most of us have gained weight while the gyms were shut and a few extra grey hairs because salons remained shuttered for so long.

But it’s downright alarming to suddenly notice dark circles around your eyes along with dry skin or breakouts, puffiness and niggling aches in joints that never used to cause problems.

Bookings at some salons may be up right now but is a quick fix the answer?

In truth, the sub-par appearance of our lockdown skin offers a window into the health of our body – and our state of mind.

"We all know what tired, fatigued, sagging skin looks like and we associate that with being old," says Prof Mark Birch-Machin, professor of molecular dermatology at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University.

"Your skin is like the tip of an iceberg, just 10 per cent is what you see is on the surface; it’s what lies beneath that’s really important.

"The good news is that it’s temporary. Skin has a tremendous ability to bounce back and renew itself if you do the right things like eat a better diet, and those measures will vastly improve your overall health and banish the perception that you have prematurely aged."

It stands to reason that the stresses, strains and uncertainties of the pandemic have taken their toll.

From the comfort snacks we’ve been eating to the simple human interactions we miss, corona fears to employment worries, almost every aspect of Covid-19 life has impacted on our mental and physical well-being.

A recent King’s College London and Ipsos MORI survey of 2,254 people has revealed that almost half – 48 per cent – of respondents say they have put on weight during lockdown.

The same percentage report feeling more anxious or depressed than usual.

Lockdown loneliness has been identified as a real issue with potentially severe – in extreme cases fatal – consequences.

Figures show that younger people aged 16 to 24 were more likely to have experienced it as those aged 55 to 69.

"We get so much from our face-to-face social relationships, not just pleasure but reassurance, affirmation and information," says Robin Hewings, director of policy and research at the Campaign to End Loneliness.

"The loss of those connections can feel devastating and that has a knock-on effect on our mental health and self-esteem."

The effect of loneliness on our health is downright shocking; it is comparable to risk factors such as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Isolation increases the likelihood of a range of diseases, including dementia, and places sufferers at a 26 per cent risk of early death.

"It’s easy to look after yourself when you feel a valued member of a community or social network, but if you are depressed and have lost your confidence then it’s far harder to invest in your own well-being," says Hewings.

"You start to think negatively and judgmentally about yourself and others, which lowers your mood and your immune system. It’s a really emotionally painful position to be in."

There is increasing evidence that when it comes to our well-being, the physical and the psychological are inextricably linked.

But while ageing is certainly not all in the mind, we can hold on to youthfulness by shifting our mindset.

"Looking in the mirror isn’t an accurate reflection of your age," says Richard Siow, director of ageing research at King’s College London.

"We’re all different so it’s a very complex picture – and there’s a lot more to it than the awful sight of your own face up close on Zoom."

Skincare commercials may imbue ageing with negative connotations but gerontologists and ageing experts say our aim should be to age in a positive way, which means remaining healthy and disease-free for as long as we can.

"What we term ageing is a decline in cellular function over time and different cells decline at different rates. Some can regenerate, others respond to nutrients or stimulation," says Dr Siow.

"The things we associate with growing older such as frailty or dementia are by no means a given; someone can be in their 70s and have a biological age that is decades younger because they have been proactive about maintaining their body mass, muscle tone and brainpower."

Just as we refer to ‘rolling back the years’, the medical profession is turning to the use of ‘biological age’ as a gauge for well-being, which can provide a better focus for individual patients as well as an incentive to improve.

There have been suggestions that calculations of ‘Covid age’ could also be used to identify people’s vulnerability to coronavirus and ascertain whether it would be safe for them to return to working in an office.

Post-pandemic, nobody bats an eyelid when their GP tells them they are overweight. But discovering in your 30s that you have a body age of someone in their 50s – and are at risk of illnesses linked to that age group – provides an urgent incentive to change.

"The things that keep us in good physiological health are the same boring four tenets; being as active as possible, eating a balanced diet, not smoking," says Stephen Harridge, professor of human and applied physiology at King’s College London.

"Some people have exercised a lot more during lockdown and really benefited from it. But if you become inactive for a period of time – even over two weeks – watching Netflix or lying in bed you decondition your body.

"Your cardiovascular system is less effective, your musculoskeletal system becomes weaker, your metabolic rate is affected and your immune system is lowered."

But it’s never too late to improve your activity levels, boost your health and reduce your biological age.

There are other major gains, too; a 2019 study carried out at the University of Texas and published in the International Journal of Obesity revealed that exercising regularly leads to healthier eating habits.

After becoming active for several weeks, formerly sedentary participants were more likely to choose foods like lean meats, fruits and vegetables, while their preferences for fried foods, sugary drinks and other unhealthy options decreased.

"Exercise creates a virtuous circle of physical and mental well-being," says Prof Harridge. "You move more, you eat better, you feel positive."

When it comes to the process of growing older, there is only one dilemma: do you want to age fast or slow?

"At some point in life, you are going to struggle to lift yourself out of a chair," says Prof Harridge. "It’s going to happen and the only question is this; would you rather that was in your mid-90s or your mid-70s?"

Now there’s a useful question to ask next time you stand before the bathroom mirror surveying your face.

The Daily Telegraph

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