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Chocolate May Be Pretty Sweet for Your Brain, Too

Study participants that ingested a large amount of cocoa flavanols exhibited memory function typically seen in those two to three decades younger

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The fountain of youth may be a chocolate one. Ok, maybe that’s overstating things, but the mighty cocoa bean, source of all chocolate, is indicated in yet another health benefit, this time in preserving the brain’s memory function.

Scientists at Columbia University Medical Center found that memory decline related to normal aging for participants in their 50s and 60s was improved to the level of a 30- or 40-year-old by consuming high doses of a chemical extracted from the cocoa bean.

“We showed that ingestion of epicatechin, a dietary flavanol, improves cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain … that selectively declines with normal aging,” said Adam M. Brickman, Ph.D., associate professor of neuropsychology at Columbia’s Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s and the Aging Brain.

Thirty-seven adults aged 50 to 69 were given either a diet of 900 milligrams of flavanols a day, or a diet of 10 milligrams of flavanols a day, for three months. For the experiment, candy king and study sponsor Mars, Inc., developed the flavanol-rich drink consumed by both groups.

Scientists investigated participants’ brains at the beginning and end of the study with an fMRI scan, measuring blood volume in the dentate gyrus and testing memory that is controlled by the dentate gyrus.

Photo by Eric Hossinger/Flickr

The result? “High cocoa flavanols cause an improvement in the area of brain that’s affected by aging,” said Scott A. Small, M.D., senior author of the study and professor of neurology at the Taub Institute, in a video release. Members of the high-flavanol group exhibited memory performance typically seen in those two to three decades younger than the average participant, said Small.

But doctor-approved high-chocolate diets are still a fantasy for now. For starters, it’s not known how long the improved brain function would last or whether it depends on ongoing consumption of the high-flavanol diet. Plus, Small is quick to point out that these results need to be replicated in a larger study.

And then there’s this: “The amount you would have to eat to consume similar doses that we studied would likely be unhealthy,” says Brickman. So much for that all-Snickers meal plan. However, cocoa-extract supplements are already on the market, including one from study sponsor Mars.

Flavanol-rich cocoa is already very intriguing to a number of researchers in neurobiology and cardiovascular health. Pre-existing studies have shown that cocoa’s flavanols may improve blood flow in general and in the brain in particular, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and prolonging cognitive abilities.

But rather than gorging yourself on leftover Halloween candy in hopes of a longer, more active life, stash the fun-size bars and get back to tried and true healthy choices. “Exercise is beneficial for cognition in older adults,” says Brickman. “Other work on diet and cognitive aging, including some done in our center at Columbia University, suggests that adherence to a Mediterranean-like diet may have some positive benefits with regard to cognitive aging.”

You can also get your flavanol fix from foods and drinks that don’t rely on heaps of sugar and butterfat for their flavor, like green tea and some fruits.

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