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Could cocoa help fight memory loss?

28/01/2015 | By Freedom Health Insurance
Naturally occurring antioxidants found in cocoa beans, called flavanols, could help improve age-related memory decline, according to a recent US study published in Nature Neuroscience (1). US mental health social network, PsychCentral, reports that memory decline starts in early adulthood, but it becomes more obvious and starts to have a noticeable impact on quality of life when people reach their 50s and 60s (2).  

During the experiment, participants were selected at random to receive either a high-flavanol or low-flavanol diet for three months (1). According to the NHS Choices website, the drink given was made specifically for the purpose of this research by food company Mars (who also part-funded the research) (3).  The supplement contained flavanols found in raw cocoa which are usually lost when cocoa is processed (2).

Brain imaging and memory tests were carried out before and after the special diet. NHS Choices reports that the brain scans showed the high-flavanol group had increased brain function in the brain area associated with memory decline. The high-flavanol group also performed the tests assessing cognitive ability more quickly than the low-flavanol group (3).

But instead of rushing to our sweets cupboards to indulge in ‘healthy’ chocolate, NHS Choices stresses that the cocoa used in the study is not like the one found in your usual chocolate products. Chocolate is a processed cocoa product and it does not contain the same high levels of flavanols as the drink used in the research. For that reason, they caution against an increase in hot chocolate consumption in order to boost memory, warning that hot chocolate bought in a supermarket may be high in sugar and may just boost your waistline, raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of tooth decay (3).

NHS Choices concludes that the US study was limited in both size and length of trials, but suggests that larger, longer-term trials in the future may show whether high flavanol supplements can result in a more rounded improvement in cognitive ability and memory (3).

1. Brickman, A.M., et al, 2014. Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults, Nature Neuroscience, 26 October. Available here.
2. Wood, J., 2014. New Study Shows Dietary Flavanols can Reverse Age-Related Memory Decline, Psych Central, 26 October. Available here
3. NHS Choices, 2014. A mug of cocoa is not cure for memory problems, 27 October. Available here.