Does Chocolate Help Brain Health?

A new study this week that linked the antioxidant-rich flavanols in cocoa to improved memory in healthy older adults produced lots of yummy headlines, so  it’s OK to stuff ourselves with leftover Halloween candy, right? Well, not exactly.

Study participants — all between the ages of 50 and 69 — saw striking improvements in memory after drinking a special cocoa drink daily for just three months. On average, the memory of 60-year-olds improved to perform more like that of  30- or 40-year-olds, according to lead author Scott A. Small, professor of neurology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. A control group that downed a low-flavanol drink did not show such improvement on the memory and pattern-recognition tests.

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Sadly, this does not mean the average older adult could improve his or her memory with candy bars. First, Small estimates you would have to eat at least 25 chocolate bars a day to get the amount of flavanols in the drink — and the ensuing obesity caused by all that fat and calories would be terrible for your brain and heart. Second, the processing of most chocolate bars makes them virtually flavanol-free. “Do not, please do not, eat that much chocolate,” Small urges.

Beyond the cocoa headlines, there is even more exciting news from the study published in Nature Neuroscience, Small adds. It turns out that the area of the hippocampus most involved in age-related memory loss (dentate gyrus) is “clearly distinguished” from the area of the hippocampus affected by Alzheimer’s (entorhinal cortex). The study also helps validate previous research that found cocoa flavanols improve blood flow, heart health and memory in humans and mice. The study was funded in part by Mars Inc., as well as the National Institutes of Health and two research foundations.

“I do think that the idea here is that dietary intervention and lifestyle might ameliorate a normal age-related memory process,” Small says. So we may one day be able to create a chocolate bar that improves memory in older brains. When that happens, by the way, we won’t be handing them out to the little trick-or-treaters at our house. We’ll keep those for ourselves.

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