Flavanols in Cocoa Found to Reverse Memory Decline
A recent study conducted by Dr. Scott A. Small, MD, at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) has found that certain compounds, called flavanols in cocoa could reverse memory decline in older adults who are otherwise healthy. The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The study is the first to provide evidence that changes in a specific part of the brain directly contribute to memory decline, and that dietary intervention may be able to reverse memory decline caused by these kinds of changes. The flavanols in cocoa were the specific compounds studied.
In most people, advanced age typically comes with some degree of cognitive decline. Most people notice some degree of memory decline, such as misplacing items or forgetting names, in early adulthood. For most people, memory decline doesn’t significantly affect quality of life until they get into their fifties or even sixties. This memory decline is not the same as that caused by Alzheimer’s, a disease that destroys neurons in several parts of the brain, particularly the area responsible for memory.
Previous research conducted by Dr. Small found that changes to the dentate gyrus, a part of the brain located in the hippocampus and thought to govern the formation of new memories, were linked to age-related memory decline. That work showed a correlational link, but did not prove that those changes directly caused the memory decline.
To determine whether changes to the dentate gyrus actually caused memory decline, Dr. Small set out to find out whether it was possible to improve function in this part of the brain, thus improving memory, by the use of flavanols found in cocoa.
The food company Mars, Inc., supported the research. They used a proprietary process to extract flavanols from cocoa beans. The flavanols were then used to prepare a test drink specifically for the study. Most processing methods remove most of the flavanols in cocoa, so eating more chocolate in hopes of improving memory isn’t going to help.
The study followed 37 healthy volunteers between the ages of 50 and 69 for three months. They were randomized into two groups, one of which received 900 mg of flavanols per day, the other received 10 mg of flavanols per day. Each volunteer underwent brain imaging to measure volume of blood in the dentate gyrus, and memory tests included a 20 minute pattern-recognition exercise.
Brain imaging at the end of the study showed significant improvements in dentate gyrus function in the high flavanol group, according to lead author Adam M. Brickman, PhD, associate professor of neuropsychology at the Taub Institute. The high flavanol group also significantly improved their memory test scores. Some participants started the study with the memory of an average 60 year old, finished with the memory of an average 30 or 40 year old. The team is planning a larger study to confirm the findings.
Flavanols can also be found in tea leaves and a variety of fruits and vegetables, but the specific types of flavanols and concentrations vary widely.
Other Effects of the Flavanols in Cocoa and Other Foods
Research has shown flavanols to have a part to play in increasing anti-inflammatory substances. This finding supports a beneficial effect of flavanols in helping the body fight the effects of stress. Stress is a continuing factor in modern society. Its negative effects on the body include adrenal fatigue. When the adrenal glands become depleted due to continued demand on them for the release of hormones to fight stress, adrenal fatigue sets in. More damage to body systems results. Flavanols may help prevent continued damage.
Appropriate treatment of adrenal fatigue involves a different viewpoint from that of traditional medicine. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) model views stress, inflammation, and how the body reacts from a functional viewpoint. This allows for a treatment that involves all the systems of the body, instead of simply an organic, symptomatic treatment. Core imbalances that lie at the foundation of illness are examined in this model. The immune system is a definite focus in the NEM model.
Flavanols in cocoa have also been shown in some research to have antioxidant qualities, making them useful in preventing some cardiac problems. Lower blood pressure has also been shown to be a benefit of flavanols. Research has indicated promising results from a study involving flavanols and lower risk of pancreatic cancer. In this study, those subjects who ingested higher amounts of flavanols lowered their risk of pancreatic cancer compared to those subjects who had lower amounts. Blood thinning qualities were shown in another recent study. However, these qualities were less robust than those seen in low-dose aspirin. These additional effects of flavanols have been found in both in vitro and in vivo studies. This increases the strength of the findings and strongly suggests continued research is warranted.
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