Cocoa could be the secret to good memory in old age
Scientists find that elderly people who had consumed higher volumes of cocoa bean flavanols performed better in a cognitive task
A diet rich in cocoa could help stave off dementia-like memory loss in the elderly, new research suggests.
Scientists found that cocoa bean flavanols, which are naturally created dietary compounds found within the cocoa bean, enhanced the cognitive abilities of older people.
In a study performed on 37 participants aged between 50 and 69, either a high or a low dose of cocoa flavanols was given to them over three months.
In a delayed-recognition memory task, those who had consumed a high dose performed much faster than those who received a low dose.
The difference was believed to be caused by an increase in blood volume in a brain region called the dentate gyrus among those who had been given the higher dose of cocoa flavanols.
Previous studies have found that a decline in the function of this part of the brain during old age may be linked to memory loss over time.
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Centre in the United States, who conducted the new study, said it provided the first direct evidence that one component of age-related memory decline in humans is caused by changes in a specific region of the brain and that this form of memory decline can be improved by a dietary intervention.
Scott A. Small, one of the paper’s authors, said: “If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30 or 40-year-old.”
The findings still needed to be replicated in a larger study, he added.
Dementia charities offered a cautious welcome to the results, which were published in Nature Neuroscience, but agreed more research was needed.
Dr Clare Walton, research manager at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “This well-designed but small study suggests the antioxidants found in cocoa can improve cognitive performance by improving blood flow to a certain region of the brain. The brain region is known to be affected in ageing, but as yet we don’t know whether these brain changes are involved in dementia.
“With the winter nights setting in, many of us will be settling down with a nice hot cup of cocoa at the end of our day. However, the jury is still out as to whether partaking in things high in antioxidants can improve your memory or reduce your risk of dementia.”
Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, also warned that the findings should not be taken as a sign to “stock up on chocolate bars” as the supplement used in the study was specially formulated from cocoa beans.
He said: “This very small trial highlights some possible effects of flavanols found in cocoa beans over a short time period, but we’d need to see much longer, large-scale studies to fully understand whether a diet high in these flavanols could boost cognition in old age.
“We also don’t know how meaningful the improvements measured in the tests used here would be for people in their daily lives. This study didn’t look at dementia, and we can’t know from this research whether a diet high in cocoa would have any effect in either preventing or delaying the onset of the condition.”