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Aging Well
Brain Health
Diet & Nutrition

Cocoa Flavanols Combat "Senior Moments"

Taking the chill out of winter weather by indulging in cup of hot cocoa may also be helping to dial back cognitive decline – but only if the naturally occurring dietary flavonols haven’t been removed by processing. Dietary cocoa flavanols—naturally occurring bioactives found in cocoa—reversed age-related memory decline in healthy older adults, according to a study led by Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) scientists. The study, published in October 2014 in the advance online issue of Nature Neuroscience, provides the first direct evidence that one component of age-related memory decline in humans is caused by changes in a specific region of the brain and that this form of memory decline can be improved by a dietary intervention.

A release from the university explains that as people age, they typically show some decline in cognitive abilities, including learning and remembering such things as the names of new acquaintances or where they parked the car or placed their keys. This normal age-related memory decline starts in early adulthood but usually does not have any noticeable impact on quality of life until people reach their fifties or sixties. Age-related memory decline is different from the often-devastating memory impairment that occurs with Alzheimer’s, in which a disease process damages and destroys neurons in various parts of the brain, including the memory circuits.

Previous work, including by the laboratory of senior author Scott A. Small, MD, had shown that changes in a specific part of the brain—the dentate gyrus—are associated with age-related memory decline. Until now, however, the evidence in humans showed only a correlational link, not a causal one. To see if the dentate gyrus is the source of age-related memory decline in humans, Dr. Small and his colleagues tested whether compounds called cocoa flavanols can improve the function of this brain region and improve memory. Flavanols extracted from cocoa beans had previously been found to improve neuronal connections in the dentate gyrus of mice.

Dr. Small is the Boris and Rose Katz Professor of Neurology (in the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, the Sergievsky Center, and the Departments of Radiology and Psychiatry) and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in the Taub Institute at CUMC.

A cocoa flavanol-containing test drink prepared specifically for research purposes was produced by the food company Mars, Incorporated, which also partly supported the research, using a proprietary process to extract flavanols from cocoa beans. Most methods of processing cocoa remove many of the flavanols found in the raw plant.

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