Flavanols Can Boost Memory for Some People: Study

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May 30, 2023 – A new study adds to the growing body of evidence that eating certain nutrients may help the brain stave off the effects of aging. This latest indication, from researchers at Columbia and Harvard universities, shows that older people who had a diet low in flavanols boosted their scores on memory tests by 16% after taking a flavanol pill for 1 year.

Flavanols are a plant-derived nutrient and are found in foods and drinks such as tea, red wine, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries, and peanuts, according to Harvard Health. Cacao beans, which are used to make cocoa, are particularly rich in flavanols. 

The study included 3,500 healthy older adults who were randomly assigned to take either the flavanol pill or a placebo pill. The researchers found that, overall, those who took the flavanol pill only saw a slight improvement in memory test scores. But when they specifically looked at people with a poor diet, the pills had a much bigger impact, leading them to conclude that flavanol deficiency is a driver of age-related memory loss. Age-related memory loss is considered a normal part of aging associated with occasional lapses in short-term memory and slowed thinking.

The findings were published today  in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers noted that their results are consistent with other research that taking flavanol supplements didn’t improve memory for people who already had a sufficient level of the nutrient. The new study also wasn’t able to go so far as to say flavanol deficiency causes memory problems. 

“The improvement among study participants with low-flavanol diets was substantial and raises the possibility of using flavanol-rich diets or supplements to improve cognitive function in older adults,” Columbia University neuropsychologist and researcher Adam Brickman, PhD, said in a statement.

The next step to further explore these latest findings would be to conduct a full clinical trial examining the impact of boosting the level of flavanols in people who are deficient, the researchers said.

“Age-related memory decline is thought to occur sooner or later in nearly everyone, though there is a great amount of variability,” said the study’s senior author, Scott Small, MD, of Columbia University. “If some of this variance is partly due to differences in dietary consumption of flavanols, then we would see an even more dramatic improvement in memory in people who replenish dietary flavanols when they’re in their 40s and 50s.”