Oxidative stress has been implicated both in the aging process and in the pathological changes associated with Alzheimer's disease. Antioxidants, which have been shown to reduce oxidative stress in vitro, may represent a set of potentially modifiable protective factors for poor memory, which is a major component of the dementing disorders. The authors investigated the association between serum antioxidant (vitamins E, C, A, carotenoids, selenium) levels and poor memory performance in an elderly, multiethnic sample of the United States. The sample consisted of 4,809 non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black, and Mexican-American elderly who visited the Mobile Examination Center during the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a national cross-sectional survey conducted from 1988 to 1994. Memory is assessed using delayed recall (six points from a story and three words) with poor memory being defined as a combined score less than 4. Decreasing serum levels of vitamin E per unit of cholesterol were consistently associated with increasing levels of poor memory after adjustment for age, education, income, vascular risk factors, and other trace elements and minerals. Serum levels of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, and selenium were not associated with poor memory performance in this study.