How to maintain brain health as you age: Expert tips and 1 man's routine

Henry Chan Hing-yu at the Sage Active Ageing Centre in Kwun Tong, Kowloon. He eats a wholesome diet, plays games and socialises with friends to keep his brain healthy.
PHOTO: Edmond So

Hong Kong retiree Henry Chan, 72, is committed to keeping his brain healthy. To maintain cognitive function, keep his memory sharp and stave off age-related conditions such as dementia, he eats a wholesome diet, exercises regularly, reads and socialises with friends.

"I live a healthy lifestyle, following a low-fat diet, eating antioxidant-rich and high-fibre foods like vegetables, fruit and whole grains, doing tai chi, and taking 30-minute brisk walks every day," he shares.

"And while the pandemic has made it hard for me to meet with people the way I used to, I do try to stay socially engaged by doing volunteer work and catching up with friends at my local elderly community centre."

In addition, Chan is fond of "brain games". He particularly enjoys the games offered in Exercise Your Brain, a programme created in 2020 by The Hong Kong Society for the Aged (Sage) with support from The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. Sage is the largest non-governmental organisation dedicated to care of the elderly in Hong Kong.

Professor Timothy Kwok is the director of the Jockey Club Centre for Positive Ageing in Hong Kong.
Professor Timothy Kwok is the director of the Jockey Club Centre for Positive Ageing in Hong Kong. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Exercise Your Brain is a set of computer games designed to promote brain health and care among all age groups. It also aims to improve participants' cognitive ability, especially that of the older generation.

The ageing brain is real, according to Professor Timothy Kwok, director of the Jockey Club Centre for Positive Ageing in Hong Kong. As we get older, most us may experience memory loss or struggle with multitasking, memorising, learning new things or recalling what we've learned.

We may also have difficulty remembering friends' names or finding the right words to express ourselves. Our thinking may be slower, our reflexes may not be as quick any more, and we may find it hard to focus.

"As we age, our brain becomes limited in its ability to replenish or regenerate its cells," says Kwok, who is also professor in the department of medicine and therapeutics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"In addition, signalling between the brain's nerve cells slows down, due to the deterioration of the myelin sheath, an insulating layer that forms around nerves.

"Our brain cells also require a lot of energy, and oxygen, to function, but this means that they're also more vulnerable to oxidative stress, which can damage the structures inside the cells."

Circulatory problems associated with conditions such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), diabetes and hypertension may also affect brain health and function. When blood flow to the brain slows down, the cells do not get sufficient nutrients.

Alzheimer's disease and stroke also tend to accelerate brain ageing, Kwok adds.

Fortunately, there are several ways to protect your brain from age-related deterioration or, if you have dementia, slow its progression.

"Adjusting your diet can help," says Kwok. "I recommend avoiding fatty and sugary foods and eating nutrient- and antioxidant-rich ones instead. There's scientific evidence behind so-called 'brain foods' like walnuts , salmon and blueberries, but we don't know the optimal amounts to eat. I suggest enjoying moderate amounts of a variety of foods rather than focusing on specific ones.

Exercise Your Brain is a set of computer games designed to promote brain health and care among all age groups. Photo: Edmond So
Exercise Your Brain is a set of computer games designed to promote brain health and care among all age groups. PHOTO: Edmond So

"It's also important to get regular exercise. This improves overall blood circulation and boosts blood flow to the brain. If you can exercise with a friend, even better, because social interaction has also been shown to delay brain ageing.

"When we're older, especially after we have retired, we usually feel less motivated to socialise or we may prefer being alone, but that's not good for brain health."

Social interaction may involve spending time with friends and making new ones, doing volunteer work, taking part in group activities, and so on.

The extra bonus of meeting new people and volunteering is that they increase our self-confidence and self-esteem.

Another way to maintain your cognitive function is to keep learning. This shouldn't stop after leaving school or retiring, says Kwok. In fact, anything that engages your brain can help - even playing games.

Dr Kim Mak Kin-wah is the chairman of The Hong Kong Society for the Aged (Sage).
Dr Kim Mak Kin-wah is the chairman of The Hong Kong Society for the Aged (Sage). PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

"Brain training games, card games, crossword puzzles, and games that involve social interaction like mahjong, are useful. This is especially so when you're older and retired, because this is when many people become sedentary and have fewer people to socialise with."

The 25 games in the Exercise Your Brain programme that Chan enjoys can be accessed online, at the eElderly Portal (www.e123.hk) or through the app of that name in the App Store or Google Play. So far, Exercise Your Brain has 5,000 registered users.

To encourage more elderly people to use it, players who complete an assigned mission or win a game are awarded game coins that can be redeemed for gifts.

"The games are designed to train five cognitive training domains - namely memory, concentration, eye-hand coordination, mental arithmetic and judgment," says Dr Kim Mak Kin-wah, Sage's chairman.

Before starting the games, players create a personal account and complete an assessment to see which two of the five domains are their weakest. They then choose the games aimed at addressing them.

"Brain training is useful in that it helps with improving older adults' cognitive performance and neurocognitive skills," Mak says.

Chan shows his favourite brain games on Exercise Your Brain. Photo: Edmond So
Chan shows his favourite brain games on Exercise Your Brain. PHOTO: Edmond So

A study was recently done to determine how useful these online cognitive training games have been for elderly Chinese people, especially those with mild cognitive impairment, Mak says. The findings will be released in January 2022.

Chan has noticed an improvement in his memory , concentration, judgment, hand-eye coordination and mental arithmetic skills since starting the Exercise Your Brain programme, and says the games are rewarding in other ways, too.

"I especially love to play Keep the River Clean and Recycling for the Future because they're easy ways to earn game coins that I can later redeem for gifts, such as electronic appliances and health care products."

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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