The legend of the Fountain of Youth hasn't so much gone away as it has mutated, captivating new generations of explorers and believers seeking the elixir that will supplant atrophy with acuity and bring back the brawn of one's so-called prime. Ponce de León allegedly went looking for it, and look where he ended up. Have you been to Florida?
Nevertheless, the pursuit persists. Take, for example, the buzz in recent years over human growth hormone, or HGH, touted as a remedy for restoring muscle mass and other hallmarks of youth to aging bodies; that claim has been widely debunked, and evidence suggests its use can lead to diabetes and other maladies.
These days, as America's baby boomers approach older age, the "anti-aging" business – a multibillion dollar industry and today's fastest-growing medical specialty – is booming, says Lauren Kessler, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon who takes readers deep inside that industry to separate help from hype in her latest book, "Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging."
So many products, potions, pills and procedures routinely marketed as "anti-aging" illustrates a key challenge in the attempt to age well, which is to say, to feel vital and relevant for as long as humanly possible, says Kessler, who counts herself among the boomers but doesn't reveal her chronological age (more on that later).
"I think it's really important for us to understand how the weight of the culture is against being positive about getting older," Kessler tells U.S. News. Americans equate old with "frail, crabby, sexless and useless," she says. Instead, she argues for "growing older with intention, and passion, and energy and vitality, because that's really what I think of when I think about staying young and what my personal goal is in staying young," she says. "That's an attitude, but it also comes from being really healthy."
[Read: Recipe for Health.]
On her quest to get there – by way of an array of diets and exercise programs, measurements of her muscle mass, resting heart rate and even her mitochondria (yes, mitochondria, to determine her energy efficiency), research into long-lived cultures and lab studies and a tour of an anti-aging expo in Las Vegas headlined by Suzanne Somers – Kessler discovers a few key lessons on aging well. Among them, there are no shortcuts (which is why you'll really need to read the book). "If it sounds too good to be true, then it is almost undoubtedly not true," she says about claims drawn from lab tests on mice, for example.
But there's also this – your age is not necessarily your age. Your biological age, determined by biomarkers, such as your cholesterol levels, physical strength, bone density and resting heart rate, is a better age indicator than your birth date, she says. She realized this with a "thwack," she says, at her high school reunion. Among a room full of peers, some looked 35 and others looked 70, she says. "And nobody was 35 in there, and nobody was 70."
What's more, she learns that 30 percent of the rate at which we age is determined by genetics. The rest of it? Your lifestyle. So if you determine through biomarkers that you're biological age is older than your chronological one, perk up. "You could view that as the beginning of the to-do list because you can actually do something about this."
What can you do? Reduce stress, eat a plant-based diet and organic food when possible, and consider supplements, since most American diets fall far short of needed nutrients, she advises, among other things. But bar none, the very best thing you can do to stay young? Exercise, she says. "You have to move a lot and in different ways."
Study after study confirms that, if there is one salient answer to the question of how to feel younger, fitness is it, she explains in a chapter aptly titled "The Sweaty Truth." One compelling example, among many, is a study that found over the course of eight weeks of strength training, women between the ages of 87 and 96 tripled their muscle strength and grew the size of their muscles by 10 percent, she writes. Another study found that middle-aged men and women who exercised twice a week and ate a healthy diet cut their risk of Alzheimer's disease in half. Aging, Kessler contends, may be less a function of growing old than becoming inactive.
Kessler stresses integrating movement into your life, because even one hour of vigorous cardio at the gym isn't enough to reverse eight hours of sitting at a desk all day. For her part, she might start her day with a jog and end it with yoga. And in between, she sets her smartphone to buzz every hour, reminding her to move, be it chasing the cat or doing 50 jumping jacks. Her social life has changed, too. Instead of socializing over meals, she meets friends for walks or bike rides. And she may resume, two or three times a year, a 14-day detox diet that she writes left her feeling "unburdened, empowered, upbeat. And, yes, youthful."
[Read: How to Break Your Sitting Habit.]
And all of these efforts add up. "It is the accumulation of small decisions over a long period of time that keeps us youthful," she says.
Plus, one's attitude about aging correlates directly with how well we age. Kessler cites a Yale study that found that the "perceptions a person held about aging had more impact on how long he or she lived than did their blood pressure, cholesterol level, or whether they were smokers," she writes. "Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, or – get this – the actual state of their health, the men and women with positive views on aging lived seven and a half years longer than those who bought into the negative stereotypes."
[Read: 10 Tips to Lighten Up and Laugh.]
With that in mind, Kessler says she's avoiding peers who talk about slowing down: "Now is the time to rev up." And she brims with an invigoration when she imagines the possibility of this new kind of old age. "If you had both the experience of having lived that long and the vitality and energy because you are biologically youthful, consider that. I mean, how powerful would that be?"
After a year of investigating the latest fads and facts around healthy aging, and adopting the best recommendations from science and those she trusts, has Kessler gotten any younger? Yes. Her biological age, she says, "appears to be somewhere between 45 and 48."
So perhaps there is a Fountain of Youth after all. Seekers just have to reorient their compass, and point it right back at themselves.