We call them "senior moments," those times we forget in mid-sentence what we intended to say, misplace something we just had in our hands or can't remember why we walked into the kitchen.

We tend to think of memory loss as a natural consequence of aging, something that, unlike gray hair or wrinkles, we can't do anything about.

"But that's not true," said Dr. Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the school's Center on Aging.

The lifestyle choices we make now -- what we do for fun and relaxation, how active we are, what we eat -- can have a major impact on mental performance and overall brain health for years to come, he said.

Small covers the topic in his book, "The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young" (Hyperion, $16.95). A growing body of research in memory and brain function is showing that there are many ways to improve mental sharpness, prevent dementia or even delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

"It is never too early to start protecting our brain," Small said.

Memory matters strike a special chord in America's baby boomers, the generation of people now in their early 40s to late 50s who are fueling an explosion of self-help books on memory improvement such as "Keep Your Brain Alive" by Lawrence Katz, "Total Memory Workout" by Cynthia Green and "Saving Your Brain" by Dr. Jeff Victoroff.

Dr. Kathleen W. Wilson, a senior internist at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, has an upcoming book, "Maintain Your Brain: Prevent Stroke and Dementia," that looks at things people can do to protect their brains.

"In the last few years, doctors have figured out how to prevent a lot of cases of dementia," Wilson said. "The many people who may be affected in the future need these facts now."

We all experience some forgetfulness as we age, Small notes in "The Memory Bible." Difficulties with memory become more common when we hit middle age, when we notice problems such as forgetting people's names, where we parked the car or what movie we saw last weekend.

Lay some of the blame on our busy lifestyles.

"Our lives have become more frenetic and chaotic," Small said.

"A woman I know who is a real estate agent was multitasking while she was driving. She was talking to her husband on the phone and she said, `I can't find my cell phone. Let me hang up and you call me back so I can find it."'

One memory technique Small recommends can be summed up in three words: "Look, snap and connect."

"It boils down to actively observing what you want to remember, focusing your attention, rehearsing it and being able to pull it out of your memory stores," he said.

"We need to create a mental snapshot. Most people find it easier to remember visual information.

"The story method also is effective. It's a good way to remember errands, to arrange them in a logical order. If I need to go to the market and to pick up the laundry, I might imagine the grocer waving to me from the laundry.

"By adding detail, we're giving it meaning. If it has meaning, it fixes in your memory stores, into the brain cells that organize information, and makes it more permanent."

Small and other researchers stress the importance of physical activity and a healthful diet in maintaining healthy brains. Antioxidants, which occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables, can protect brain cells, Small said, as can foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish and nuts. Excess body fat increases the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, which increase the risk of small strokes in the brain, Small says.

We can keep brain cells active and making those all-important new connections by participating in stimulating activities, Small said. "These can be things like working crossword puzzles or jigsaw puzzles, learning a new language or brushing your teeth with your left hand" if you're right-handed.

When it comes to mental fitness, he said, the phrase "use it or lose it" holds true.

March 22, 2004

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