Americans' Costly Quest For Youth

Popularity of anti-impotence drug Viagra is latest evidence of the search to feel young through artificial means.

The search for the Fountain of Youth, fueled by an almost unquenchable desire to make time run in reverse, is as old as civilization.

For some Americans, that goal has never looked so tantalizingly close. At their disposal there now sits an unprecedented array of products and procedures intended to prolong the look and feel of youth: drugs that make hair grow back, anti-wrinkle creams, "smart pills," and now Viagra, the new anti-impotence drug.

Indeed, Viagra is one of the fastest-selling drugs in history, with 113,000 men seeking a perscription each week. And while some Americans worry about the quick-fix mentality these products evidence, drug and biotechnology companies promise more soon.

It's also boom time for cosmetic surgery, as younger and less-affluent Americans now enter a realm once inhabited by the rich and famous. In the past four years, the number of procedures has risen by 75 percent. People now use their lunch breaks to go have fine facial lines erased with lasers.

"The desire to improve and enhance has always been around," says David Nasaw, a cultural historian at City University of New York.

"Now there's the possibility of doing so. And desires flow as much from the presence of possibilities as the other way around. People didn't want to go fast until there were fast cars. Now they want to go faster."

The possibilities are also fueled by the strong economy and soaring stock market, which have put more disposable income in Americans' pockets - and made $20,000 face lifts and $10-a-pill treatments more financially feasible. Add to that the arrival into middle age of the baby-boom generation - a population bulge of 76 million Americans - and the marketing potential appears enormous.

But behind the boom, says Mr. Nasaw, lies something quintessentially American about the quick-fix culture: Instead of working through the issues that may underlie a problem, or learning to live with ourselves as we are, many people prefer to buy a solution.

"Americans are always reinventing themselves," says Nasaw. "They invented a nationality. Immigrants become Americans.... Country folk become city folk. Just put on a new set of clothes and a new smile."

Neil Howe, an economist and historian who writes on generational issues, notes that it was actually baby boomers' predecessors - the so-called silent generation - that pioneered what he calls the "looking and feeling and acting young movement" and the phenomenon of the midlife crisis.

Within the baby-boom generation, in fact, there lies a significant strain of thought that says: "I'm plump, I'm gray, this is how I look, like it or leave it." This is the generation that "questioned authority" and went back to nature - and has spurred a boom in organic foods and herbal remedies. Some people also understand that youthfulness and age are separate matters - that one's outlook on life doesn't have to be affected by calendar years.

Still, the dominant cultural message, reinforced in the media and films, is one of youth, beauty, and homogeneity. An unease about long-term employment prospects undergirds some of the demand for cosmetic surgery. Some patients worry that if they have drooping jowls and sagging eyelids, they we will be seen as old and expendable.

Among the post-baby boomers - Generation X - signs point to an even greater inclination toward physical reinvention.

"Believe me, that's a generation that has no trouble altering the body," says Mr. Howe. "From steroids to bulimia to body-piercing ... they have a much less tender attitude toward the body than most boomers I know."

What's striking, say medical ethicists, is the seeming lack of concern over the possible long-term effects from some of these medications, and what could happen if people regularly use a combination of them. A recent study published in a major medical journal noted that side-effects from legal, doctor-prescribed medications are one of the leading killers today.

"People have a love-hate relationship with biomedical things," says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant for Pfizer Inc., which developed Viagra. Yet while people say they fear side-effects and risks, he says, many remain optimistic about the things that medicine can do and deliver.

The bottom line is that medical research is driven by the market, and the market is demanding more and better "youth enhancing" products. Gerald Celente, publisher of the Trends Journal, sees a majority in the baby-boom generation that will do anything to feel young and look young. "Some of them will do it naturally, the majority will do it artificially," says Mr. Celente. "Snake oil for baby boomers is going to be a huge market."

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