If there is a more pleasurable way of staving off the cognitive impairment of aging than drinking cocoa, perhaps only red wine drinkers have found it.
Flavanols are naturally occurring antioxidants found in abundance in cocoa plants. They help the body deal with free radicals that trigger negative changes in body chemistry and help prevent blood clots.
Now, a new study led by Giovambattista Desideri, M.D., study lead author and associate professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of L’Aquila in Italy, suggests ingesting cocoa flavanols daily may improve mild cognitive impairment.
Experts say that more than six percent of people aged 70 years or older develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) annually. Moreover, MCI can progress to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers say flavanols may aid brain health by protecting neurons from injury, enhancing metabolism, and facilitating neuronal interaction with the molecular structures responsible for memory. They are also found in tea, grapes, red wine and apples and have been associated with a decreased risk of dementia.
Indirectly, flavanols may help by improving brain blood flow.
In the study, 90 elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment were randomized to drink daily either 990 milligrams (high), 520 mg (intermediate) or 45 mg (low) of a dairy-based cocoa flavanol drink for eight weeks.
Researchers controlled participants’ diet to eliminate other sources of flavanols from foods and beverages other than the dairy-based cocoa drink.
Cognitive function was examined by neuropsychological tests of executive function, working memory, short-term memory, long-term episodic memory, processing speed and global cognition.
- Scores significantly improved in the ability to relate visual stimuli to motor responses, working memory, task-switching and verbal memory for those drinking the high and intermediate flavanol drinks;
- Participants drinking daily higher levels of flavanol drinks had significantly higher overall cognitive scores than those participants drinking lower-levels;
- Insulin resistance, blood pressure and oxidative stress also decreased in those drinking high and intermediate levels of flavanols daily. Changes in insulin resistance explained about 40 percent of the composite scores for improvements in cognitive functioning.
“This study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally-balanced diet, could improve cognitive function,” Desideri said. However, he warns that the beneficial findings may have been influenced by a variety of factors.
“The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated (influenced) by an improvement in insulin sensitivity. It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function.”
Furthermore, the study population was generally in good health without known cardiovascular disease. Thus, it would not be completely representative of all mild cognitive impairment patients.
In addition, only some clinical features of mild cognitive impairment were explored in the study.
“Given the global rise in cognitive disorders, which have a true impact on an individual’s quality of life, the role of cocoa flavanols in preventing or slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia warrants further research,” Desideri said.
“Larger studies are needed to validate the findings, figure out how long the positive effects will last and determine the levels of cocoa flavanols required for benefit.”
The research is reported in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.
Source: American Heart Association