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Millions of members of the post-World War II Baby Boom generation will begin crossing a chronological landmark in 1996 by reaching age 50.

Many are trying to do everything possible now to reach age 70, 80, and beyond in good health.People already are overloaded with advice about staying physically healthy. But mental decline poses an equal or greater threat to independence in old age.

What's the secret to retaining your mental sharpness?

Psychiatrists and psychologists term this "cognitive" function. It's the ability to remember, think rationally and intelligently, analyze situations, stay aware of world and local events and generally keep your wits about you.

Most people would never guess the answer that emerges from many studies: The single most important factor is educational level. People with higher levels of education retain their mental functioning longer and generally decline more slowly.

Don't turn away in despair if you've not finished high school. The story may be much more complex than years of formal education and suggests ways that everybody can use to stay mentally sharp.

Studies indicate that serious cognitive decline, where older people are unable to learn complex new information or tasks, occurs very slowly. And there actually are indications that people can become younger mentally, improving their performance on memory and other tests.

There also is strong evidence that mental decline occurs more slowly in some people than in others. It verifies the real-world impression that some people are mentally old at age 60, while others are totally with it at age 90.

Typical of the studies of cognitive decline was a major project completed late last year by researchers at Harvard, Yale and Duke universities. They measured cognitive ability in 1,200 people aged 70-79 when the study began and then again 30 months later. Researchers also recorded each person's alcohol intake, smoking habits, level of emotional support from family and friends, education, body weight, amount of daily exercise, cholesterol level, lung function and other characteristics.

Then researchers identified factors linked to the least decline in cognitive ability. Education level was the key factor, followed by good lung function and daily exercise.

Researchers cited several possible reasons why educational background was so important. Some reasons do bode ill for people with little formal education. The researchers note, for instance, that education may build up more nerve connections and greater reserve brain capacity early in life. More educated people thus would better tolerate the effects of age-related death of brain cells.

But there are other possibilities, according to the researchers.

Educated people, for instance, may simply know how to score well on tests like those used to measure mental function. They may read more throughout life and stimulate their brains in other ways that keep nerve cells healthy.

Indeed, education may simply be a "marker" or a "surrogate" for a healthy lifestyle. More educated people tend to smoke less, eat low-fat foods, get more exercise and do preventive health care. Researchers say that these, rather than number of years in school, may be the real keys to staying mentally fit.

Big gaps exist in scientific knowledge on the topic, partly because of inadequate research funding. The gaps are ironic, considering that everyone is aging and everyone yearns for enough brain power to live and function independently in old age.

To summarize the evidence: Stay in school, read and stay mentally active throughout life, exercise every day and embrace the same lifestyle important for good physical health.