Is Chocolate The Key To Stopping Memory Decline In Older Adults?

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Chocoholics can now rejoice: chocolate has some significant health benefits. Well, sort of. According to a new study, age-related memory decline may be reversed with a high dosage of flavanols, an anti-oxidant found in cocoa and tea. Dr. Scott Small, a neurology professor at Columbia University in New York, is the senior author of the paper that describes how flavanols effect cognitive skills. His research showed that study participants who started out with the memory of a typical 60-year-old improved to the memory of an average 30- or 40-year old after three months.

Cognitive function begins to slow and decline as we get older. The brain is a muscle that we can exercise with puzzles like Sudoku, and keep healthy with a diet rich in vitamins C, E, and A. But the results of this study are bringing a new kind of health and hope for the older mind. Participants between the ages of 50 and 69 began the study with a series of memory tests before researchers gave them a daily drink either with 900 milligrams of flavanol, or 10 milligrams. After the study, those who were regularly drinking the high-flavanol beverage not only had significantly better performances on the second round of memory tests, but the area of the hippocampus that creates new memories was functioning with noticeable improvements.

The study was funded in part by Mars, Inc. As the maker of M&Ms, Snickers, Milky Way, and Dove chocolate, it’s not surprising that they’d want to help prove that chocolate benefits your health. But it’s not completely the chocolate that’s doing the healing.

Flavanol is a naturally occurring antioxidant that we often find in plants, like raw cocoa beans. This antioxidant fights against negative changes in your body, like blood clots or bad cholesterol in the blood stream. Early testing indicated that cocoa flavanols help blood flow to and from the brain, which may improve depression and anxiety as well as dementia. In addition to helping your brain, regular consumption of foods that contain flavanols can also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and lower blood pressure.

Cocoa beans contain a significant amount of flavanol, but they can only benefit you if you get the full effect of the raw cocoa. Most chocolate manufacturers who deal in commercial chocolates blend and dilute most of the flavanols out of the final product. To get enough of the antioxidants, you would have to eat 25 candy bars with unfiltered flavanol for any hope of improving your memory. But, after regularly eating all of those candy bars you would then have to battle against obesity and maybe blood glucose spikes. More studies will be needed to make flavanol extracts available, and to define the minimum amount of flavanols needed to induce improvement. For now, you can read about the study in the online issue of Nature Neuroscience.