Coming Of Age

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Baby boomers are not aging gracefully. We're fighting it every step of the way, making the War on Aging a national crusade, dedicating some of our nation's greatest scientific minds and medical talents to developing new forms of cosmetic surgeries, new exercise contraptions, new diets, new miracle fabrics that camouflage and contain, and all manner of expensive new anti-aging ointments. --Bill Geist, The Big Five-Oh! Facing, Fearing, and Fighting Fifty

When they were 18 years old, their rites of passage into adulthood--civil rights protest, the war in Vietnam, the counterculture--filled the nation's front pages. When they finally married and began families--often much later than their own parents--their family issues became the stuff of sitcoms. Throughout their now advancing lives, the baby boomers have always stood at the demographic center of American life. Their concerns have been the dominant concerns, their passions the dominant passions. So it stands to reason that as the baby-boom generation begins its massive sweep into old age, the age-old problems of this transition into seniority are being rediscovered and re-examined as never before. These are banner years for books about "the elder passage," as writer Robert Raines has labeled it. The spate of material ranges from guides on how to avoid the ravages of aging, to manuals on turning 50, to how-to books on dealing with aging parents and to--the ultimate boomer topic--volumes on death, the one transition that this most youth-oriented generation has been denying since day one.

The Fountain of Youth
Baby boomers have traditionally wanted it all, so why not eternal youth? As the "gray-by boomers" cross the 50-year line in record numbers, they are lapping up a freshet of books about how to turn back the clock. Life expectancy in the U.S. is at an all-time high. A newborn boy can expect to reach 73.4 years, and a newborn girl 79.3. But extensions of the average life span apparently just make us greedy for a longer, healthier life. That's where fountain-of-youth books come in. Depending upon the author, they promise to help you live longer--to 100 or even beyond.

The covers of books in this genre are too often tarted up with sensational titles and exaggerated claims. But once you get beyond the dust jacket, much of the advice, while hardly earthshaking, tends toward the irrefutable. Who doesn't believe that you're likely to live longer if you eat in a healthy fashion and exercise sensibly? Dipping into these pages can be like having a personal trainer. Whatever your age, they make you feel like jumping out of your chair and running a lap or two. Each author has a favorite technique. But those looking for a miracle will be disappointed. Every program requires careful diet and exercise, not to mention an end to smoking. Caveat emptor: Ponce de Leon never found the fountain of youth, and you probably won't either. But a little reading won't hurt.

Age Protectors: Stop Aging Now, a 500-page compendium edited by Edward Claflin (Rodale), gives a dozen "stop-time tactics" to push back the clock, such as lists of "superfoods" to eat (broccoli and kidney beans) and exercise tips (do the aerobically beneficial waltz rather than the stand-in-one-place Macarena). The book is full of realistic dietary tricks that add up to many forgone calories. For example, "beware of gourmet cappuccinos and mochaccinos made with full-fat milk." Ask for skim milk instead, and you'll never notice the difference. And put fruits and veggies at eye level in your refrigerator so they're the first things you see.

Feel 30 for the Next 50 Years by David W. Johnson (Avon) stresses that it's not enough merely to extend your life span; it's the youth span that's critical. "Youth span refers only to the number of years we live in good health, with high energy, strength and mobility, and with vigorous mental, sensory and sexual powers," Johnson says. He points to the readily observable fact that at a college reunion, some people have aged more than others: "You do not need to be a molecular biologist to conclude that something (or some things) other than simply the passage of time determines the rate at which we age." And it's not simply a matter of genes, says the author. Johnson prescribes a regimen of supplements, hormones, vitamins and antioxidants in addition to dietary guidelines, exercise and stress-reduction techniques, to achieve that younger-than-the-class-of-'68 look.

Dr. Michael Roizen, chairman of critical care at the University of Chicago and author of RealAge: Are You as Young as You Can Be? (HarperCollins), echoes the same theme. "We really can slow the pace of aging--and even reverse it," he writes. Roizen shows how our choices affect the quality of our old age. "Eating that hamburger will make you older tomorrow than if you ate that salad today. And you will be younger tomorrow if you exercise today." Some suggestions are bromide-simple: wear a seat belt, take an aspirin a day, floss your teeth daily. Others are more intriguing: Enjoy (safe) sex frequently. "By making simple decisions, you can take your foot off the gas pedal," says Roizen, "and slow down your rate of aging."

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