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HealthNotes

High-Flavanol Cocoa Linked to Better Memory

High-Flavanol Cocoa Linked to Better Memory: Main Image
A daily dose of high-flavanol cocoa gave seniors with mild memory loss a boost in memory and language

A study in Hypertension found that a daily dose of high-flavanol cocoa gave seniors with mild memory loss a boost in memory and language.

In this study, researchers explored the effects of flavanol-rich cocoa on brain function in 90 adults (ages 64 to 82) with mild memory loss. The participants were randomly assigned to a high-flavanol (990 mg flavanols), intermediate-flavanol (520 mg flavanols), or low-flavanol  (45 mg flavanols) cocoa drink, daily for 8 weeks. Brain function was tested at baseline and after the intervention to assess for memory-related factors such as attention, recall, language, and time to complete a given task.

Results showed the high- and intermediate-flavanol groups completed an assigned task by as much as 35 seconds earlier compared with the low-flavanol group. The high-flavanol cocoa drink also performed better in the verbal fluency test compared with the low-flavanol group (speaking about 28 versus 22 words per 60 seconds).  In addition, insulin resistance, blood pressure, and lipid peroxidation (a chemical reaction that leads to the formation of cell-damaging free radicals) significantly decreased in the high- and intermediate-flavanols groups.

The study authors note that improved brain function was associated with a reduced insulin resistance and that better blood sugar (glucose) regulation may help recover brain function. The authors comment that “the regular dietary inclusion of flavanols could be one element of a dietary approach to maintaining and improving not only cardiovascular health but also specifically brain health.” They also note that further studies on the role of cocoa in brain function are warranted.

Feeding the brain

Increasing research shows that what we eat and drink definitely affects our brain as well as our body. Here are some additional brain-feeding foods to keep in mind while grocery shopping:

Whole foods. Buy nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains that have not been processed, as highly processed foods are often low in nutrients, rich in calories, and high in fat and sugar. They are also more likely to contain preservatives and additives such as chemicals and dyes that can hurt brain health.

Low-sugar items. Remember that many types of cocoa and chocolate products are often high in sugar and can worsen health over time. The products used in this study were rich in flavanols, which are plant chemicals with health-giving properties. High blood sugar has been linked to poor health in general and to poor brain health. Just as excess sugar is bad for the rest of the body it also hurts the brain. Eating low or no sugar foods and saving sugary treats for special occasions may help preserve brain function.

Power nutrients. Specific nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to better brain health for the young and the old. Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, is a good source of omega-3s. In addition, the study authors comment that the B vitamins, vitamins D and E, and choline, have also been linked to improved brain function. But it is important to remember that any one particular nutrient or food by itself won’t fully protect your brain. It’s eating a balanced diet with a variety of nutrients that may help protect your memory in the long run.

(Hypertension 2012;60:794–801)

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, websites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.

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