Cocoa flavanoids — like those contained in a cup of cocoa — can reverse age-related memory loss in older adults, a study finds.
This is the first direct evidence that an important component of memory decline that comes with age can be improved with a simple dietary change.
Typically, normal age-related memory declines are noticeable to people in their fifties and sixties: things like forgetting where the keys are or having trouble recalling a name or word.
These changes are much less severe than those which typically occur as a result of devastating dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, found a high-flavanol diet could restore aspects of older people’s memory back to that of a typical 30- or 40-year-old (Brickman et al., 2014).
The changes were clearly visible in brain scans, as Dr. Adam M. Brickman, the study’s lead author explained:
“When we imaged our research subjects’ brains, we found noticeable improvements in the function of the dentate gyrus in those who consumed the high-cocoa-flavanol drink.”
The image below shows the dentate gyrus in green (this is part of the hippocampus).
Previous research has shown that it is changes in this area of the brain that are associated with normal age-related memory loss.
Participants in the study were 37 healthy people aged between 50 and 69.
They were randomised into two groups, one of which was given a high-flavanol diet (900mg of flavanols per day) and the other given a low-flavanol diet (10mg per day).
At the end of the three-month period of the study, participants on the high-flavanoid diet showed improvements on memory tests.
Professor Scott A. Small, one of the study’s authors, explained the results:
“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.”
Flavanols are also found in tea leaves, and certain fruits and vegetables, although the exact amounts and forms vary widely.
The researchers cautioned that people should not eat more chocolate as the critical flavanoids are not present at the required levels — the dietary supplement used in the study was specially formulated.
Image credit: Lab of Scott A. Small, M.D.