Dear Abby:

I am in my mid-fifties and look forward to traveling with my husband when he takes early retirement next year. My mother died at 82 with Alzheimer's disease, and lately, if I misplace my sunglasses or forget somebody's name, I become terrified that I'm coming down with it, too.

I have heard there are certain brain exercises people can follow to keep from losing our memories as we get older. My husband says I'm silly to worry about this now, but if there's anything I can do to protect myself from future problems, I want to get started. Any suggestions?

Worried Silly in L.A.

Although a family history of Alzheimer's does increase your risk, my experts tell me that recent scientific data estimate that only one-third of what determines memory ability and long-term brain health is genetically programmed. The other two-thirds are actually dictated by things that are under our own control, such as lifestyle and personal health choices. Thus, as we age, we have far more influence over our own brain fitness and memory abilities than we ever imagined.

It is not "silly" to be concerned about getting a head start on preventing age-related memory loss. I spoke with Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, who says it is never too early to begin protecting our brains. In his book, "The Memory Bible," Dr. Small explains that our brains actually begin to show signs of aging when we are in our early twenties. He outlines ways to protect our brain function with healthy diet, mental aerobics, memory techniques and stress reduction.

Organizations like the UCLA Center on Aging (www.aging.ucla.edu) and AARP (www.aarp.org) also provide information and programs about healthy lifestyles and ways to stave off many age-related diseases. Check them out. It may give you some much needed peace of mind.

Dear Abby:

I am a 17-year-old girl in high school. Recently I was required to make a presentation in my science class. Naturally, I wanted to look my best. That morning I selected a denim skirt and black shirt -- neither of which was too short or low-cut. Black nylons and chunky- heeled black shoes completed my ensemble. I headed off to school feeling confident about my appearance.

The minute I arrived on campus, I realized I had made a severe miscalculation. It was as though I had broken some unspoken, but well-known, rule. Kids looked me up and down and stared at my legs. One astonished girl gasped, "Oh, my god! She's wearing black stockings!"

Abby, I am a reasonably conservative person. I have never worn anything outrageous and would never intentionally go to school wearing something risque or improper. I still think the black pantyhose were appropriate for my outfit. Could you shed some light on this?

Dazed and Confused in the Midwest

Perhaps your classmates were surprised to see you "dressed up." If you had violated a dress code, I'm sure you would have been told about it by a teacher or the principal. From what you have described, your outfit was appropriate for the occasion.

Dear Abby:

I have a precious 6-year-old niece on the East Coast whose father just died. I have been searching for a sympathy card designed for a child, but have found nothing. "Thinking of you" cards don't seem quite right.

How best can I let this little girl know how sorry I am for her loss?

Concerned Aunt in Colorado

Buy a pretty blank card and write a short note of sympathy to your niece, in lettering she can easily read. Tell her how much you love her, that you're thinking of her, and how sad you are for her loss.

Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Write Dear Abby at www.DearAbby.com or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, Calif. 90069.

(c)2003, Universal Press Syndicate