A Chocolate a Day Keeps the Brain Sharp?
A new study funded by the Mars Company, suggests that a serving of chocolate every day may stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in elderly patients. Every year, 6% of those beyond age 70 develop mild cognitive impairment, the researchers noted. So let’s take a closer look.
Flavanols—The Miracle Supplement
The report published August 13th in the journal, Hypertension, found that the higher the concentration of flavanols elderly patients consumed, the better their scores in tests of cognitive function. Flavanols found in cocoa, red wine, grapes, apples and tea have been previously linked with improvements in blood pressure and insulin resistance.
Giovambattista Desideri, M.D., of the University of L’Aquila in Italy, lead author of the study, said, “’This study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally balanced diet, could improve cognitive function.”
90 adults age 70 and older were enlisted for the eight-week study. The participants all demonstrated mild problems with memory and thinking that go beyond normal age-related conditions, but did not appear to interfere with their daily activities. Beyond their mild cognitive impairment, the study participants were in good health, with no cardiovascular disease, the researchers said.
They were asked to consume low, moderate or high amounts of a flavanol-rich cocoa beverage every day for eight weeks. The remainder of their diet was controlled to reduce the consumption of other flavanol-rich foods.
Results showed that the higher the concentration of flavanols, the better the people did on memory tests, both in speed and accuracy. The moderate and high consumption groups also showed improvements in blood pressure and insulin resistance. “It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function,” said Dr. Desideri.
The Experts Weigh In
Mild cognitive impairment can be a precursor to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, so reducing mild cognitive impairment also might decrease the percentage of people with these diseases, the researchers suggested, though more research would be needed to show this. For example, the improvements to the cardiovascular system may increase blood flow in the brain, leading to mental improvements, the researchers said.
- Dr. Marc L. Gordon, Chief of Neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital reports that although the results are intriguing, more research is needed to understand the connection between flavanols and brain performance. Gordon suggests that the researchers incorrectly equated improved speed with an overall improvement in cognitive function, and these are not necessarily the same.”
- American Heart Association spokeswoman Rachel K. Johnson, a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont, said it’s well-known that flavanols lower blood pressure, but the positive effect this may have in the brain is a relatively new finding. While the relationship should be studied further, Johnson said, that there is no harm in adding flavanols to a diet. “It’s important to note that flavanols are found in chocolate with high cocoa content, so dark chocolate is the best for health,” Johnson said.
- Dr Laura Phipps, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘Cocoa-based treatments for brain function would likely have patients queuing out the door, but this small study of flavanols is not yet conclusive.’
So the jury is still out. But the possibilities are exciting! And in the meantime, another suggested positive link between chocolate and improved health serves as continued evidence of chocolate’s status as a super-food.