SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As its eldest members shuffle past the half-century mark, the baby-boom generation is fueling a growing demand for "velvet deer antler," "catalyst-altered water" and other elixirs, potions and miracle cures that promoters claim can outfox Father Time.
Anti-aging support groups are sprouting everywhere, with members ranging from community leaders and anti-government libertarians to new-age naturalists and con artists.
And in their search for the Fountain of Youth, these modern-day Ponce de Leons are logging on to the Internet, joining on-line chat sessions and snapping up longevity concoctions via credit card through a proliferation of "life-extension" web sites.
The quest to extend human life once was derided as an unsuitable subject for public discussion or respectable scholars, but two developments have contributed to the current boom.
Because average life expectancy has increased almost 30 years since the turn of the century, legitimate scientists have begun taking the topic seriously. Longevity research has been launched at universities across the nation.
Moreover, a flood of health information, including some completely outlandish claims, is now within instant reach of millions of consumers, due to the free-ranging and unfiltered nature of communications on the Internet. It is a boundless frontier, where almost anyone can open a web site to peddle his wares.
Consumer advocates find the trend worrisome.
"There is so much outrageous stuff, you wonder how anybody would believe it," said John Renner, who runs the Consumer Health Information Research Institute in Missouri, a watchdog group. Mr. Renner is especially alarmed by the on-line claims.
"More than with any other marketing technique that has ever been used," Mr. Renner said of the medium, "the public is going to have to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff "
Authorities say many of these anti-aging nostrums don't work and may have dangerous side effects. In recent years, federal investigators say, such remedies have become the nation's fastest-growing health fraud.
About $2 billion is spent each year on anti-aging products. And with an increasing share of the population entering its Golden Years, that amount is climbing.
"It's going to be a huge business," said 45-year-old Kathryn Grosz of Ben Lomond, who is active in life-extension circles and who takes such products herself.
Former California Sen. Alan Cranston is another satisfied customer. About three months ago, the retired Democrat began supplementing his daily regimen of running and vitamins with melatonin, a hormone supplement that is one of the most widely used compounds reputed to lengthen life.
"I decided I wanted to live as long as possible and that the human race would be better off if people lived longer," Mr. Cranston said, reasoning that older people such as he have wisdom that can help society. "I'm 81 and going strong."
Many of those who use such products believe they have multiple benefits. Some take them in hopes of making themselves smarter. Others do so to improve their sex lives. A recent Internet blurb from Freedom Enterprises Inc. covered topics ranging from "life extension" to "extended orgasm."
The volume of anti-aging prescriptions available on the Internet is remarkable.
An 8-ounce bottle of "Dr. John Willard's Catalyst-Altered Water -- a Bio-Enhancer," goes for $15. Four ounces of "Colloidal Silver" -- which promoters claim combats 650 "disease organisms" and can be "gargled, dropped into the eye or ears, used vaginally (or) anally" -- costs $39.95. For about $20, "Memory Mate" is touted as "an astonishing supplement that can turn back the hands of time." And 30 capsules of "velvet deer antler," which one longevity group says can boost the immune system, improve sex and accelerate wound healing, sells for $36.
Among the most controversial of on-line promoters is the Life Extension Foundation, which promises those who shell out $75 a year for memberships "a direct pipeline to dozens of life-extending, cognitive-enhancing drugs from Europe and Asia."
The Food and Drug Administration raided the foundation's Florida offices in 1987, seizing products the government claimed were "unapproved drugs."
And the group's founder, Saul Kent, was involved in a bizarre case a year later in Southern California, when Riverside County authorities announced that his 83-year-old mother's head was missing. Officials later determined the woman had died naturally and that her head was frozen by an organization devoted to cryonics.
Despite its legal woes, foundation officials say the group has grown steadily. In a recent on-line screed, Mr. Kent accused the federal agency of violating "every constitutional guarantee of freedom in the land" and it warned, "The FDA must be destroyed before it destroys us!"
Wallace Sampson, a Valley Medical Center doctor who is chairman of the National Council Against Health Fraud, fears that Mr. Kent's anti-establishment viewpoint is spreading. Increasingly, he said, anyone who questions the claims of those selling health products is vilified as "an agent of the American Medical Association or the drug companies."
Frances Kovarik, executive director of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine in Chicago, said her organization tries hard "to separate the snake-oil salesmen from the actual researcher." The trouble is, she said, a lot of people aren't listening.
"The baby boomers believe there's nothing they can't do and they don't want to age," Mr. Kovarik said. And with so many quacks promising longevity for a price, "I'm afraid there are going to be people who think, unfortunately, that this is the answer to all of their needs."
Miracles or snake oil?
Among dozens of products reputed to retard the aging process, these are among the most heavily touted -- and controversial.
Coenzyme Q-10. A synthetic version of a natural enzyme, promoters claim it can slow aging by bolstering the body's immune system. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it has no proven benefit and may harm users with poor circulation.
Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. Because levels of this natural chemical decline with age, users believe it can lengthen their lives. One on-line promoter calls it among "the most significant scientific finds of the century!" The FDA says there's no proof it works.
Germanium. Some promoters claim it can strengthen cells against free radicals, help people with AIDS and prevent Alzheimer's. The FDA disputes that and says it can cause kidney damage and death.
Gerovital-H3. Besides its alleged age-fighting properties, this Novocain variant is sometimes sold as a cure for arthritis, atherosclerosis, hypertension, deafness, depression and impotence. The FDA calls the claims unsubstantiated and says users can suffer low-blood pressure, breathing problems and convulsions.
Melatonin. Newsweek says this hormone supplement is "poised to become one of the hottest pills of the decade." Promoters say it protects cells from destructive molecules known as free radicals. It's under scientific study, but authorities say it's too early to assess its usefulness and warn that it may leave users groggy or depressed.
Ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Promoters say this natural chemical, which carries the body's genetic information, can rejuvenate old cells, improve memory and even stop wrinkling. Authorities call the claims unproven.