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Can Cocoa Reverse Age-Related Memory Decline?

Oct 27, 2014 12:03 PM EDT

Dietary cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring bioactives found in cocoa, reversed age-related memory decline in healthy older adults, according to new research.

Now, that's not to say you should start eating obscene amounts of chocolate, researchers note, as the cocoa concoction used in the study is different from regular chocolate.

Scientists from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) used a specially-created cocoa flavanol-containing drink produced by the food company Mars. It extracted flavanols - also found naturally in tea leaves and in certain fruits and vegetables - from cocoa beans.

Flavanols extracted from cocoa beans had previously been found to improve neuronal connections in the dentate gyrus of mice. This region of the brain has previously been associated with age-related memory decline; until now, however, scientists couldn't provide evidence of a causal link in humans.

The CUMC team studied 37 healthy volunteers, ages 50 to 69, who randomly received either a high-flavanol diet (900 mg of flavanols a day) or a low-flavanol diet (10 mg of flavanols a day) for three months. Following brain imaging and memory tests, the results were astonishing. Those who consumed the high-flavanol drink showed noticeable improvements in the function of the dentate gyrus.

Not to mention the high-flavanol group also performed significantly better on the memory test.

"If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30- or 40-year-old," senior author Scott A. Small explained in a statement.

Age-related memory decline is not to be confused with Alzheimer's disease, in which neurons in various parts of the brain, including the memory circuits, are damaged and destroyed. As people age, they'll start to demonstrate some decline in cognitive abilities, like having trouble remembering the names of new acquaintances or forgetting where they parked their car.

This study, published in the journal 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.

Researchers plan to conduct a larger study to see if the findings can be replicated.

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