Michael Schell can relate. Last summer, while at the beach, he accidentally took a dip in the ocean with his PDA/cellphone in his pocket. It went dead. Immediately, he felt as if his entire world had sunk into a technological abyss. He couldn't receive calls, but even worse, he found himself completely isolated from business associates and friends. "Because we have a PDA or computer, we don't make any attempt to remember information," he observes."Then, if we damage or lose the device, the panic is enormous."

For Stephen Ciesinski, CEO of Laszlo Systems, a San Mateo, California, web software development firm, the story is similar. In times past, he stored numerous phone numbers, addresses, and other information in his brain. Now it's held on a computer and a PDA/cellphone. "Part of the problem is that even if a person wants to memorize personal information, it's no longer possible," he says. He estimates that his PDA holds more than 3,000 contacts, each with fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and multiple phone numbers. That amounts to somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000 data fields.

Now, Ciesinski says, the challenge is recalling which pieces of information reside on which gadget, finding the right piece when he needs it, and operating all the devices and software that preserve it. The last bastion of human memory? "I still keep track of birthdays and important anniversaries in my head," he boasts.

Although it's tempting to demonize these devices as human memory killers, Michael Epstein, a professor of psychology at Rider University, says history is littered with memory-saving tools. From the abacus to the electronic calculator, from the printed address book to the modern contact manager, humans have always tried to simplify their thinking.

It's a new chore to juggle this plethora of passwords and PINs, but that juggling also creates new opportunities, Epstein says."Instead of having to remember phone numbers and birthdays, we must learn how to operate all the devices," he says. "Yes, we become more reliant on the machines, and we can lose certain skills. But we are not evolving out of our ability to remember." He sees Ciesinski's challenge - all that finding and operating - as a different kind of brain exercise: "As long as we nurture our memory in other ways, there isn't a problem."

UCLA's Small believes that mental aerobics, physical exercise, anda good diet go a long way toward ensuring that the 100 billion or so brain cells in each person function efficiently [see "Food For Thought"]. He also agrees that packing data into electronic devices isn't necessarily a bad thing. "With the amount of information we're confronted with in today's world, it is essential to find ways to manage and cope," he says. "Ideally, these devices allow us to use our memories for other, more important things."

Although there's a genetic component to memory, UCLA professor Dr. Gary small says that it's only about one-third of the package. "The other two-thirds involves lifestyle choices, including diet and exercise," he says.

One of the problems with the human body is that aging causes DNA to break down. So-called antioxidants - abundant in green leafy vegetables, citrus, berries, raisins, and other fruits and vegetables - can keep the brain humming, small notes. others have promoted supplements, such as ginkgo biloba, which may help increase blood flow to the brain, and huperzine A, an herbal extract that may keep neuro-transmitters functioning well.

Obesity and poor diet are bigger problems. They lead to hypertension, diabetes, and increased risk of strokes and microstrokes, all of which affect brain function. When Small put individuals on a mediterranean diet low in animal fats and low in processed sugar, and had them eat five small meals a day, drink lots of water, and engage in aerobic physical exercise, memory training, and stress-reduction techniques, he witnessed noticeable improvements in health and memory within two weeks. He believes that proper nutrition is an important tactic for avoiding alzheimer’s disease: “The food we eat does make a difference.”