HARDLY a day goes by when we are not reminded of the impact dementia has or will have on us, our families and wider society. Around 90,000 Scots suffer from the condition, a figure that is due to rise exponentially over the coming years as more of us live longer. Age, after all, is the number one cause of dementia, and genes play a big part in whether you will develop it.

But is there anything we can to do now to lower our risk of developing this most cruel of diseases? According to a major international study, the answer is a resounding “yes”.

Indeed, the research, commissioned by the respected Lancet medical journal, found that one in three cases of dementia could be prevented if more of us looked after our brain health better.

Researchers concluded that although dementia is diagnosed later in life, the brain changes usually begin to develop many years before and acting now could significantly improve the outlook.

The study highlighted a number of lifestyle factors that have a role in increasing or reducing our risk of getting the condition, including social isolation, depression, poor education, smoking, physical inactivity and obesity.

And it underlined the importance of building a “cognitive reserve” that strengthens the brain’s networks and help it function despite the unavoidable damage caused by ageing.

With the study in mind, we’ve come up with a list of things we can all do to help keep our brain healthy.

It’s important to note that unfortunately none of these things can stop dementia in its tracks once it has been diagnosed. But making some positive changes to your lifestyle could not only lower your risk of getting it in the first place, but improve your physical and mental wellbeing at the same time. What’s not to like?

Learn another language

Multiple studies have shown that bilingual people generally develop the condition more slowly than their monolingual peers – up to five years later, in fact. Switching between languages and using multiple parts of the brain at the same time keeps the brain agile and wards off decline, say scientists, with the benefits for cognitive health apparent throughout the lives of the bilingual.

The process of learning another language can help prevent dementia, as can other complex tasks such as learning a musical instrument or taking up a game such as bridge, where you have to predict the actions of others.

Giving another language a go couldn’t be easier, with most universities and colleges running a range of evening classes in everything from French and Spanish to Japanese and Mandarin, and there are a multitude of online options. Joining an evening class also has the added bonus of helping prevent social isolation and depression, which are also linked to good cognitive health.

Seek early treatment for depression

The Lancet study published last year examined the role of depression in dementia and remained inconclusive about whether it is a cause or a symptom of the condition. What it did say, however, is that seeking early treatment for depression, and monitoring its progress closely in older age, is important.

Scientists believe depression could increase the risk of dementia due to the stress it puts on the brain, and research shows that depressive symptoms increase significantly up to 10 years before a dementia diagnosis.

With this in mind, early diagnosis and treatment could be important to your future brain health as well as your present mental wellbeing.

Cut down on the meat

We all know that eating too much red and processed meat can be bad for our arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. But scientists are now understanding far more about the link between diet and dementia, and once again it’s not good news for carnivores.

With the incidence of dementia much lower in southern Europe, Japan and parts of India, all areas where the diet is based on vegetables, beans, grains, pulses, fruit and nuts, the connection is clear.

The UK now eats more processed meat than any other country in Europe, so for both our physical and cognitive health – not to mention the environment – a change towards a Mediterranean diet would be a good idea all round.

If you don’t want to become a fully-fledged vegetarian, why not cut down on red and processed meat, perhaps setting a target of once or twice a week, and to try building meals around fish and vegetables instead?

Stay connected

One of the most interesting things to come out of recent research on dementia is the importance of social contact.

According to The Lancet, feelings of isolation result in cognitive inactivity, which is linked to brain decline and low mood. In other words, a vicious circle of loneliness and depression can be a factor in the development of dementia, although both of these are also symptoms.

Last year the Jo Cox Commission found that nine million people in the UK always or often felt lonely, prompting Prime Minister Theresa May to call it an “epidemic” and appoint a minister to consider policies aimed at alleviating the problem.

With cognitive as well as physical and mental wellbeing at stake, then, staying socially connected is particularly vital as we get older. So, whether it’s joining a club, pursuing a hobby, doing voluntary work or simply staying in touch and engaged with family and friends, keep your mind busy.

Scientists also believe hearing loss – which is already known to create feelings of isolation – is linked to the development of dementia, so it’s also a good idea to get tested as soon as you start struggling to pick up what others are saying.

Get off the sofa…

It may seem boringly predictable but there’s no way around this one: exercise helps reduce your risk of dementia.

In fact, research found that just 45-60 minutes of aerobic exercise a week for six months can improve the memory by increasing cerebral blood flow.

It is also, of course, part of a virtuous circle that can assist in staving off depression and social isolation, not least because doing exercise improves balance, reduces the risk of falls and – just as important – lifts your mood.

Boost your memory with berries and nuts

Berries have long been labelled a superfood, largely thanks to their antioxidant properties, which have significant benefits for cardiovascular health. But the benefits for brain health are not so widely known, and major study in the US found that women who consumed a serving of blueberries and two servings of strawberries each week had a considerably slower rate of cognitive decline than those not eating berries.

Scientists believe this could be related to the high level of polyphenols in berries, which are thought to inhibit the formation of plaque in the brain, one of the major indicators of dementia. Raspberries and cranberries are high in these super-properties, too.

Research also shows that eating nuts every day – walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds - not only slows mental decline, but can positively boost memory in people of all ages, including the elderly.

So, why not throw some berries and nuts into your breakfast bowl, grab a handful as an afternoon snack or try the recipe at the end of this article?

Highland venison steak with summer venison and celeriac puree, serves 4

By Steven Tweedie of The Innis and Gunn Beer Kitchen in Glasgow


4 7oz venison steaks

1 large celeriac

30g blueberries

30g raspberries

30g redcurrants

30g blackberries

300ml milk

250g butter

1large carrot


Peel the carrot into ribbons and fry till crispy. Leave to dry until required.

Peel and chop the celeriac, place in a pot with the milk and a pinch of salt and cook on a low heat until soft. Add 200g of butter and leave to cool for 20 mins.

Heat up a frying pan until smoking. Rub the venison steak with oil and salt. Place it in the pan, cook for 30 seconds on each side, take off the heat and place the butter in the pan (which will start to foam), add a pinch of pepper and baste with a spoon for two minutes. Leave to rest.

Puree the celeriac with a stick blender till smooth and pass through a sieve.

Add the berries to the pan and reduce. Once it has reduced to a nice shine, take off the heat.

Assemble the dish. Smear one tablespoon of the celeriac puree on the place, carve the venison, place on top of the puree and spoon the berries on the plate. Add the crispy carrots on top as a garnish.