Chocolate lovers are rejoicing! From the NY Times:
Science edged closer on Sunday to showing that an antioxidant in chocolate appears to improve some memory skills that people lose with age. In a small study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, healthy people, ages 50 to 69, who drank a mixture high in antioxidants called cocoa flavanols for three months performed better on a memory test than people who drank a low-flavanol mixture.
On average, the improvement of high-flavanol drinkers meant they performed like people two to three decades younger on the study’s memory task, said Dr. Scott A. Small,a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center and the study’s senior author. They performed about 25 percent better than the low-flavanol group.
The findings support recent research linking flavanols, especially epicatechin, to improved blood circulation, heart health and memory in mice, snails and humans. But experts said the new study, although involving only 37 participants and partly funded by Mars Inc.,the chocolate company, goes further and was a well-controlled, randomized trial led by experienced researchers.
Besides improvements on the memory test — a pattern recognition test involving the kind of skill used in remembering where you parked the car or recalling the face of someone you just met — researchers found increased function in an area of the brain’s hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, which has been linked to this type of memory.
To consume the high-flavanol group’s daily dose of epicatechin, 138 milligrams, would take eating at least 300 grams of dark chocolate a day — about seven average-sized bars. Or possibly about 100 grams of baking chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder, but concentrations vary widely depending on the processing. Milk chocolate has most epicatechin processed out of it.
More extensive research is planned. As for why flavanols would help memory, one theory is that they improve brain blood flow; another, favored by Dr. Small, is that they cause dendrites, message-receiving branches of neurons, to grow.