Chocolate is in the news again - in a good way. A recent study concluded that people who ate a cocoa-rich diet for three months performed significantly better on memory tests than those who did not. The study was small, but according to an article from the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, it was "rigorous."
While one of the backers of the study was the candy maker Mars, which makes a cocoa supplement, the study was also supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Thirty-seven healthy men and women aged 50 to 69 participated in this study. Some of the volunteers drank a specially prepared cocoa beverage high in flavanols, the antioxidants found in dark chocolate. The second group of volunteers was given supplements in a daily drink containing just a small amount of cocoa antioxidants. The study took place over three months and had eye-opening results.
The group that consumed the flavanol-rich diet scored significantly higher on memory tests than the group placed on the low-flavanol diet. The tests that were given to the volunteers measured the type of memory skills that people need in order to remember where they parked their car or to recall faces of people that they’ve recently met.
According to the Fisher Center article, "even though the study participants were in their 50s and 60s, many of those drinking the cocoa-rich beverage performed as well as those in their 30s and 40s."
Test volunteers were given functional MRI brain scans which showed that the cocoa supplement improved blood flow to the hippocampus, one vital part of the brain critical for thinking and memory. Not insignificantly, this is the part of the brain first damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.
The MRIs showed that blood flow increased to an area of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, deterioration of which is thought to be involved in age-related memory loss and the onset of what many think of as senior moments.
Earlier studies in mice have shown that antioxidants bolster connections between neurons in the brain, and specifically in the hippocampus. The same thing may be happening in people, these researchers said.
Scott Small, the study’s senior author and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Taub Institute at Columbia University Medical Center said that the results of the study more firmly establishes the point that the dentate gyrus is the anatomical source of age-related memory loss. According to Small, study also offered yet more evidence that diet and lifestyle measures that increase blood flow to the brain can slow or reverse age-related cognitive decline.
Practically speaking, we’d have to eat the equivalent of approximately 25 dark chocolate covered candy bars daily in order to receive the 900 milligrams of cocoa flavanols that the well-performing group in the study received. Doing so would have obvious negative consequences, so while eating some dark chocolate daily is likely a good practice for those of us who don’t have illnesses that would be negatively affected, supplementation would likely be the only practical way that most of us could receive this large amount of cocoa flavanols.
Aside from the happy news that chocolate is still holding its own when it comes to making a contribution to our health, this study could lead the way to increased research that may point to supplementation using cocoa flavanols as one way to prevent or even reverse Alzheimer’s.
Such potential findings are far in the future, but then so are the results of most drug trials. I’m always happy to see studies using elements of our diet that we already consume since that indicates some potential for safety should more studies continue to show similar results.
Meanwhile, we shouldn’t go crazy over dark chocolate. The only things in our power at this time that most of us can do safely are exercise, diet which could include some dark chocolate for many people, socialization and mental exercise. Remember this study when it seems that everything about Alzheimer’s prevention is bleak. Chocolate may not be the full answer, but it’s nice to think it may help.
ALZinfo.org. Reviewed by Netzer, W.J. Ph.D. Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, Rockefeller University. Chocolate May Aid Age-Related Memory Loss. Retrieved from http://www.alzinfo.org/12/articles/prevention-and-wellness/chocolate-may-aid-age-related-memory-loss?awt_l=OQpOY&awt_m=IzNs5SxH6tclTD
Source: Adam M Brickman, Usman A Khan, Frank A Provenzano, et al: "Enhancing Dentate Gyrus Function With Dietary Flavanols Improves Cognition in Older Adults." Nature Neuroscience, Oct. 26, 2014
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.