Aug. 13, 2012 -- Drinking a cocoa-rich beverage every day may help brain health in older adults, a new study shows.
The study, published in Hypertension, included 90 elderly people who already had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can include difficulty with memory, language, thinking, or judgment.
For eight weeks, they drank a cocoa drink that had high, medium, or low amounts of antioxidants called flavanols. Those who got high and medium levels of flavanols in their drink did better on tests of attention and other mental skills, compared to people who got low amounts of flavanols.
Flavanols "could be one element of a dietary approach to the maintaining and improving not only of cardiovascular health, but also specifically brain health," write the researchers, including Giovambattista Desideri, MD, of Italy's University of L'Aquila.
He cautions that the results may not apply to everyone with MCI.
"We can't say, 'Eat chocolate every day,'" says neurologist and Alzheimer's disease researcher Marc L. Gordon, MD, of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y. "People need to be very careful about making broad-based dietary changes based on one study.”
Mars, Inc., maker of the cocoa powder, funded the study.
Chocolate can be high in fat and calories, and more research is needed to see how much help it is, or isn't, to the aging brain.
Importantly, this study does not say that eating cocoa daily can help prevent MCI or Alzheimer's. "It suggests that it may have a modest effect on some aspects of cognition among people with MCI," Gordon says. "We need to look at this for longer periods of time and in people with Alzheimer's as well as those with no signs of cognitive impairment."
Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, agrees. He recommends exercise -- 30 minutes of it, at least three times a week -- over flavanols.
"Flavonoids are the subject of much interest and speculation, but the evidence for flavonoids pales in comparison to that for physical exercise,” Gandy says in an email. He is the Mount Sinai chair in Alzheimer's disease research at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
When it comes to cocoa, "moderation is key," says Richard S. Isaacson, MD, of the University of Miami School of Medicine. "This is a great study. You are what you eat and you can change what you eat."
To get more cocoa in your diet, Connie Diekman, RD, suggests the following:
- Make brownies from scratch with cocoa and oil instead of butter.
- Add cocoa powder to a banana-and-peanut-butter yogurt smoothie.
- Use cocoa powder and sweetener for chocolate milk.
Diekman is the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.