Pulling out of the grocery store parking lot, you suddenly realize that you forgot spinach, the reason for your trip. You greet someone you've met before, only to discover that you can't recall her name. Or you spend a frantic ten minutes searching for your car keys only to find them in your coat pocket.
Worried that these occurrences might signal the beginning of Alzheimer's disease? They are more likely the result of fatigue, stress, or even aging itself. Although you can't avoid getting older, you can keep your powers of recollection sharp - and possibly even prevent or postpone Alzheimer's disease. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to maintain your mental muscle, regardless of age.

Is Memory Loss Natural?
Most people's power of recall does fade over time, says Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, author of Brain Longevity. Stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and other lifestyle factors all affect memory, as well. Declining memory due to aging, also known as "age-associated memory impairment" (AAMI), is considered a benign condition and a normal (although not inevitable) part of growing older.

People who are increasingly forgetful, however, may have symptoms of another condition called "early memory impairment," which can progress into Alzheimer's disease. While no definitive cause of the disease has been identified, approximately 5 to 10 percent of people over 65 have Alzheimer's, and as many as 50 percent of those 85 and older develop the disease. According to Dr. Khalsa and other researchers, you can maintain your memory - and possibly delay or even prevent the occurrence of Alzheimer's - by embracing a healthy lifestyle, consuming a well-balanced, nutritious diet, and taking certain supplements.

Maintain Your Brain
The first step in keeping your memory sharp is maintaining good blood circulation. The best way to do this is through a regular workout program. Exercise increases blood flow throughout your body, including your brain. Your brain needs glucose and oxygen to function at its peak. Regardless of how well you eat or how many supplements you take, if the blood isn't carrying those nutrients to your brain, they won't do anything for you. Make workouts part of your regular routine for body and mind.

Second, you must feed the neurotransmitters in your brain. Your diet is the primary source for trace elements that your brain needs, so it's important to eat a well-balanced diet with moderate amounts of essential fatty acids. Choose a diet rich in whole grains, foods containing omega-3 fatty acids (such as cold-water fish), and soy, which has been shown to benefit the brain. Also select plenty of antioxidant-containing fruits and vegetables of all colors: The more variety you get, the better. Research has shown that people who consume the most fruits and vegetables with naturally occurring antioxidants have the least incidence of Alzheimer's.
Finally, exercise your mental muscle to keep it healthy. Sign up for a community college or adult education class. Travel, read, or master a new computer software program. Stimulating your mind in different ways helps keep your mental acumen at its peak.

Supplement Your Memory
Dr. Khalsa recommends taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement since diet alone doesn't always supply the vitamins and minerals needed for optimal brain performance. Research shows that people who take vitamins C and E have lower incidence of Alzheimer's than those who don't. B vitamins are important for intracellular energy in the brain. Minerals like magnesium, zinc, and selenium also help maintain memory.

Another effective memory-boosting supplement is coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). This supplement stimulates mental energy and works as a potent antioxidant to help protect your brain from aging.
Brain-Enhancing Herbs
Ginkgo is the most-studied herb for memory, according to the late Varro Tyler, PhD. "Ginkgo has shown to be quite useful in treating developing cognitive deficiencies," wrote Dr. Tyler. "If one is in early stages of Alzheimer's or something of that sort, ginkgo can delay the onset of that condition and does so probably by increasing the blood flow to the brain, but it also has some effect on the central nervous system." Possibly the most popular herb for improving memory, ginkgo enhances cerebral function and helps to improve minor cognitive problems.

Ginseng is another herb with stimulating and energizing effects. Research has shown that this herb heightens mental acuity. In one study, people who took ginseng improved their scores on cognitive function tests as much as 50 percent.

The Bottom Line
If you're concerned about memory loss, talk with your doctor to rule out early memory impairment, Alzheimer's, or other medical conditions. In the meantime, take action to keep your memory sharp. What you choose to do now will help maintain your brain power in the future.

"Everyone is living longer. Life expectancy is increasing, yet we find that incidence of cognitive decline as we get older is also increasing," says Dr. Khalsa. "If you want to enjoy your later years that you're already granted by virtue of being alive at this time, you have to take care of your brain."

Brain Longevity by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, and Cameron Stauth ($25, Warner Books, 1997)
The Memory Solution by Julian Whitaker, MD, and Peggy Dace ($13.95, Penguin Group/Avery, 1999)
Your Miracle Brain by Jean Carper ($26, HarperCollins, 2000)