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Defying reality

A series on health issues for baby boomers

The bellow of nearby U.S. 19 cannot breach the sanctuary of the Anti-Aging Spa, where four friends have come to be pampered and to pause the march of time.

The women are all mothers. Now they're giddy as girls. They can find no up side, they say, to getting old.

"I can't personally think of anything good," says Joan Griffin of Tarpon Springs. The 41-year-old left her college-age son, four of his friends who "dropped in" for spring break, and a yet-to-be house-trained puppy to come to the "quick fix" party at the Fountain of Youth Institute. Griffin and her friends will spend several hours at the Palm Harbor facility and will choose from services ranging from botox injections for wrinkles to endermology massage for cellulite.

Tina Shank will use the time to get her regular injections of botox and collagen.

"I never thought I'd be 30," says Shank, 38.

No baby boomer did. The reluctance of the 35- to 50-year-olds to age, and their sheer numbers, last year boosted cosmetic medical procedures performed in the United States to 8.5-million.

No. 1, by far, is botox injections. A diluted form of botulism is injected into facial muscles to paralyze the muscles that form wrinkles. Last year, the procedure was performed in the United States more than 1.6-million times _ a 2356 percent increase since 1997.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd claims Manhattan is overrun with "botox babes." Hollywood directors, confronted by female actors with youthful but immobile faces, have publicly mourned the loss of the scowl.

"Botox relaxes the little lines," says Dr. C. Randall Harrell, Fountain of Youth Institute founder and a board-certified plastic surgeon. "In the last four to six months, there's been about an 85-percent increase in collagen and botox injections" here.

"I think the popularity of botox is there is no down time _ they want to go right back to work."

The four women are later going to dinner. Shank is the only one getting injections. The only restriction is that she not lie down for about four hours after the procedure, which could cause the injections to shift and affect other muscles.

Shank does not remove her black lace top, appliqued slacks or slingback patent pumps. Her hair is held away from her face with a headband and her skin numbed with topical anesthetic.

To inject the botox, Harrell asks her to raise her eyebrows and wrinkle her forehead to delineate the muscles, then inserts the needle about 10 to 20 times in Shank's forehead and near the outer corners of her eyes.

Placement is key for a natural effect, he says. The toxin paralyzes the muscles that control facial wrinkles by blocking impulses from the nerve cells. The paralysis stops formation of wrinkles and eradicates smaller ones. Botox was used as early as the 1970s to treat weak eye muscles and spasms. This month the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve its promotion as a wrinkle treatment. That news will likely launch a multimillion dollar campaign from manufacturer Allegan Inc. of California to rival Bob Dole's little blue pill from Pfizer.

Collagen is used at the corners of Shank's mouth and to plump her upper lip. Combined with anesthesia, collagen is injected with a tiny needle _ about 10 times smaller than the one used on blood donors, Harrell says.

Collagen injections were approved by the FDA in 1981. Derived from purified cow collagen, it is used in humans to replace collagen lost over time, causing crow's feet, smile lines around the nose and mouth, and thinner, lined lips.

Both procedures last only a few minutes. During the dozen or so injections in her lip, Shank grasps the nurse's hand. "It doesn't hurt," she says. "I'm a 'fraidy cat."

There is a small risk of an allergic reaction in some, and patients should also tell their doctor if they are taking any aspirin, medications or supplements.

Botox treatments last for three to five months and cost from $300 to more than $1,000. Collagen injections may last as long as a year.

At the institute's quick-fix parties, a Botox Banquet (injections in one area of the face) costs approximately $275; a Collagen Cocktail about $260. Clients may also opt for ultrasonic microdermabrasion facials, hot stone massages or the euphoria chamber, an enclosed capsule with vibration, music, temperature control, synchronized lights and the aromas of sage and lavender.