Health & Wellbeing

Can’t find your car keys? Cocoa flavanols may help age-related memory decline

Cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, can reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults (Photo: Shutterstock)
Cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, can reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults (Photo: Shutterstock)
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The dentate gyrus is a specific part of the brain’s hippocampus associated with normal age-related memory decline in humans and other mammals. (Photo: Columbia University Medical Center)
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The dentate gyrus is a specific part of the brain’s hippocampus associated with normal age-related memory decline in humans and other mammals. (Photo: Columbia University Medical Center)
Cocoa flavanol improved age-related memory decline in the dentate gyrus (shown in green) (Photo: Lab of Scott A. Small, MD)
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Cocoa flavanol improved age-related memory decline in the dentate gyrus (shown in green) (Photo: Lab of Scott A. Small, MD)
Cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, can reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults (Photo: Mars, Incorporated)
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Cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, can reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults (Photo: Mars, Incorporated)
Cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, can reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, can reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults (Photo: Shutterstock)

Do you forget where you left your keys or parked the car, or have difficulty remembering the names of people you’ve just met? The good news is that chocolate – or more specifically, naturally occurring compounds in cocoa called flavanols – can reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults, according to a Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) study.

As we get older, most of us will experience some issues with memory. These changes start in early adulthood but aren’t usually noticeable until we reach our fifties or sixties.

Flavanols are a subgroup of flavanoids, compounds that provide a range of health benefits. They are also found naturally in tea leaves, red wine and some fruits and vegetables.

In the CUMC study, participants who had a high-flavanol diet for three months performed significantly better on a 20-minute pattern recognition memory test than participants on a low-flavanol diet.

FMRI brain imaging showed that participants on the high-flavanol diet exhibited noticeable improvements in memory in the part of the brain associated with normal age related memory decline, the dentate gyrus. This is a different part of the hippocampus to that affected by early stage Alheimer's disease, the entorhinal cortex.

"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," says the study’s senior author Dr Scott Small.

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, provides the first direct evidence that this natural process of ageing, caused by changes in a specific region of the brain, can be improved by diet – and may avoid the need for pharmaceutical intervention.

Despite the positive findings, the researchers caution against increasing chocolate consumption.

While cocoa flavanols are abundant in the cacao plant and fresh cocoa beans, most methods of processing remove many of the flavanols found in the raw plant. Factors such as the amount of time the bean spends in and out of the pod after harvest, the amount of fermentation (a key step to develop "chocolate" flavor), and the type of drying used can all affect the level of flavanols, so even raw cacao products may not be particularly high in flavanols.

The test drink used in the study was specifically prepared by the food company Mars, Incorporated, using a proprietary process to extract flavanols from cocoa beans. Mars, Incorporated, partly supported the research.

The same formula used in the CUMC study has also improved cardiovascular health. A UK study in 2011 also found that chocolate consumption is associated with a reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston recently announced a study of 18,000 men and women to see whether flavanols can help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

The published study involved 37 volunteers. A larger study is planned to try and replicate the findings.

Dr. Scott Small discusses the study in the video below.

Source: Columbia University Medical Center

Dietary Flavanols Reverse Age-Related Memory Decline

11 comments
Joel Detrow
> The published study involved 37 volunteers. A larger study is planned to try and replicate the findings. PLEASE keep us posted. Only if a larger study shows similar results may we conclude there even MIGHT be something to this. More science will hopefully follow.
DonGateley
I rented the Nature Neuroscience paper to find out what dosage was used as "high flavonols." From the paper, "Subjects receiving high DF were instructed to take 2 450-mg high-flavanol supplements, for a 900-mg daily dose." I could find no mention in the paper itself of the source of this supplement. The results were based on a single test, the ModBent, " procedurally designed to be a novel object recognition task that is distinguished by the use of stimuli that were deliberately generated to have high visual similarities, ensuring that performance is heavily dependent on pattern separation." This test is used because, "as established in aging mice, worsening performance in novel object recognition is a characteristic of the aging hippocampal circuit." The results showed, "Improvement on the ModBent in the high-flavanol group was equivalent to improvements in cognition by approximately three decades of life..." based on comparisons with a younger set of test subjects.
Don Duncan
I have been a chocoholic for 66 years. In the last few years I have been buying raw cacao powder in large quantities to get the best price at Amazon. Now I question the quality. I would pay for a "Consumer Report" type analysis of all suppliers. If I lived in a subtropical climate I would grow my own. Too bad no one in the US does this commercially.
Kiffit
Just from a brief look around on Google search, it would appear that there are a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses and beverages that are rich in flavanoids. A diverse and healthy diet is all you need to get adequate amounts not just of flavanoids, but a whole range of other benign dietary inputs that are good for health. The research certainly seems to be a good bet for Mars Corp, but no particular additional benefit for people who are into healthy eating and drinking.
DonGateley
A company called CocoaVia claims to use the Mars extraction process and has caps at 250 mg flavonols. Four of those a day just exceeds the amount reported in the paper.
Ruth Reynolds
So where can the average person get properly prepared Flavanols? I've read articles like this one before, and as I chocolate lover, I'm left a little disappointment. If my dark chocolate bar wasn't prepared properly, then it's silly for me to think it's helping my memory. Please include how an average person can get Flavanols or how to know if my dark chocolate bar has any in it. Thanks!
Karen Sprey
Hi Ruth, the USDA database on flavanols lists general averages for a variety of foods, including chocolate (see page 104), although not raw cocoa powder http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/80400525/Data/Flav/Flav_R03.pdf Hopefully as nutritional medicine becomes more commonplace the type of information you're looking for will be easier to find and we'll be able to make better nutrition choices for specific health and wellbeing issues.
Ruth Reynolds
Thanks for your timely reply, Karen!
Mr E
At 73 I need all the help I can get. I've always had the problem of meeting someone in the hall at work that I've worked with for years and their name won't come to me. But now the number of times I go to another room to get something and after getting there can't remember what I was going after is increasing. I'm still working as an engineer so the daily mental activity is helping ward off the onset of Alzheimer's. Looking through the table provided by Karen Sprey nothing really jumps out that provides high levels of flavonols except maybe parsley flakes and a few such foods. And how many cups of parsley flakes can a person ingest in a day. It looks like the CocoaVia caps might be the best source.
MBadgero
I eat chocolate. I don't remember ever forgetting.
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