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PUMPING IRONY: Keep Calm and Carry On

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Way back in March, when the pandemic’s initial surge first caught our attention, public-health experts sounded the alarm about its threat to the mental health of America’s elderly. More vulnerable to the virus than younger folks, the senior set was thought to be more at risk of emotional convulsions caused by disruptions in their social connections and healthcare access. Sheltering in place, they noted, would boost anxiety levels, trigger depression, and perhaps even spark an epidemic of suicides.

Turns out, my geezer cohort is a lot more resilient than anyone had imagined.

Yes, we’re dying at higher rates than anyone else, but recent research suggests that those of us who have thus far managed to avoid the lethal effects of the bug are for the most part navigating our emotional terrain more successfully than our younger peers. Writing last week in JAMA, a trio of physicians notes that “counter to expectation, older adults as a group may be more resilient to the anxiety, depression, and stress-related mental health disorders characteristic of younger populations during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The authors cite numerous studies, including an August CDC survey that highlighted the emotional toll the pandemic was exacting on pretty much everyone except the elderly. Participants aged 18 to 24, for example, reported high levels of anxiety disorder (49 percent), depressive disorder (52 percent), and trauma-or-stress-related disorder (46 percent). The prevalence of these conditions declined slightly among those between the ages of 25 and 44 (35, 32, and 36 percent) and more sharply among respondents 45 to 64 (16, 14, and 17 percent), before dwindling significantly in the Medicare set (6, 6, and 9 percent).

Surveys can be deceiving, of course, and the authors note that the CDC poll did not include residents of assisted-living facilities and nursing homes, nor did it interview people suffering from dementia or their elderly caregivers. Underrepresented minorities and low-income households, they add, also presented a less-rosy picture.

“Despite these caveats, the early findings suggest higher resilience to the mental health effects of COVID-19 at least in a proportion of community-dwelling older adults,” they conclude. “This resilience may reflect an interaction among internal factors (e.g., biological stress response, cognitive capacity, personality traits, physical health) and external resources (e.g., social status, financial stability).”

I recall a conversation with a colleague of mine back in April, as our company was contemplating widespread layoffs. “It’s not like we haven’t been broke before,” I told her. She concurred, but when the axe fell, it was her, not me, who suffered the consequences. I like to think of myself as a guy who rolls pretty well with life’s punches, but I can’t really say how effectively I’d be tamping down the stress right now if I wasn’t lucky enough to be gainfully employed and working from home.

My younger coworkers would also call themselves fortunate, though I can sense how stressful their lives have become since the pandemic struck. Unlike this geezer, they left behind a vibrant social life, ambitious travel plans, career-building conferences, and probably a few dreams I’d abandoned decades ago. And those who are trying to raise kids amid the uncertainties of school schedules and childcare options seem especially on edge these days. By comparison, our empty nest has seldom felt more soothing than it does now.

Because it’s so clear to me that it’s conditions and coincidence more than any inner calm that has so far spared me from the emotional challenges so prevalent among my younger peers, I’m not really ready to buy into the notion that geezers like me operate on some higher plane of consciousness. Yes, I’m avoiding crowds, donning a mask in public places, and generally staying put. My social circle, never particularly wide, has narrowed, but as the JAMA authors recommend, I’m prioritizing my closest friends and family, focusing on quality rather than quantity.

Still, I find myself stopping short when they suggest it’s some sort of acquired geezer wisdom that has allowed us to remain calm and collected through our pandemic-imposed confinement. We are, they contend, more empathetic and compassionate, more reflective and spiritual than younger folks. And this has kept us from panicking.

“Several recent studies involving various groups of people across the adult lifespan have shown a significant inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom,” they write. “The component of wisdom that is correlated most strongly (and inversely) with loneliness is compassion. Other data also suggest that enhancing compassion may reduce loneliness and promote greater well-being.”

It’s hard to argue against the value of cultivating more compassion for humanity, but I’ve found that crafting a little more self-compassion — acknowledging my limitations, accepting my current situation — can keep even a fool like me on an even keel.

And it doesn’t hurt to remind myself every so often of the impermanence of, well, everything. On the bulletin board above my desk, a quote from mindfulness coach Daron Larson says it best: “Your strategy for living in the present will go a lot better when you accept how frequently the present sucks.”


Craig Cox
is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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Health & Fitness

Small Shifts to the USDA Dietary Guidelines

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The recent updates to the USDA nutrition guidelines recommend lowering sugar and alcohol intake and opting for breastfeeding over infant formula.

Every five years, a government-appointed committee draws up a national healthy-eating menu. Since the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans was issued in 1980, this nutritional advice has been broadly focused on our health, but it also affects food-stamp policies and school-lunch menus.

It influences processed-food formulations for the food-manufacturing industry, as well — and this is where politics and big business enter in.

More than half of the members of the panel formulating the 2020–2025 guide have food-industry ties. And those involved in adding first-ever advice for pregnant mothers and toddlers are all connected to baby-food makers.

“My concern is that these guidelines, heavily influenced by the food and beverage industry, will dictate what kinds of food are offered at schools and set the eating habits of children, particularly Black and brown children, for the rest of their lives,” says pediatrician Yolandra Hancock, MD, an obesity expert at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health.

Despite her own reservations, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, has been pleasantly relieved by this panel’s work. “I was concerned about this when the committee was first appointed because so many of the members had worked with companies making products high in sugar, salt, and fat. But the committee surprised me. It stuck to the science and came out with recommendations quite consistent with previous recommendations, but even more restrictive.”

Among the new guidelines:

  • The committee reduced the recommended limit for alcoholic drinks from two to one daily.
  • The panel advised lowering daily consumption of added sugars by 40 percent, cutting intake from 12.5 to 7.5 teaspoons, or a maximum of 120 calories or 30 grams.
  • For the first time, the guidelines recommended breastfeeding versus infant formulas, stating that being breastfed “may reduce” the risk of obesity, type 1 diabetes, and asthma.

For her part, Nestle — who served on the 1995 committee — recommends the dietary guidelines be taken with a grain of salt compared with our own intuitive common sense.

“I always have concerns about the guidelines’ increasing complexity — it’s now 835 pages,” she says. “From my standpoint, [journalist] Michael Pollan’s seven-word mini-haiku takes care of things quite nicely: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’”

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