Consuming cocoa every day could help reduce the effects of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition involving memory loss that can precede dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
As well as cocoa products, flavanols also occur in drinks like tea, and fruits like apples and grapes. They may assist brain function directly by protecting neurons and improving metabolism, for example, and also indirectly by improving blood flow.
A U.S.-Italian research team worked with 90 elderly people for eight weeks, giving them a daily dairy drink with varying amounts of cocoa flavanols: high (990 mg), intermediate (520 mg) or low (45 mg). Participants’ diets excluded all other sources of flavanols. Cognitive function was tested before and after, looking at factors such as working and short-term memory.
The team found that those given the high and intermediate drinks showed various improvements, for example in working memory and task-switching. Those with higher flavanol intakes also had significantly higher overall cognitive scores.
Furthermore, the same groups had reduced blood pressure, oxidative stress, and insulin resistance.
“The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated by an improvement in insulin sensitivity,” said study lead author Dr. Giovambattista Desideri at University of L’Aquila in a press release.
“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.”
The results are not totally representative because the researchers did not look at all symptoms of MCI and the participants’ health was otherwise good with no known cardiovascular disease.
“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 concluded.
“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 findings were published in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension on Aug. 13.
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