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Having a cocoa-rich drink every day as part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally- balanced diet could improve brain function in older adults, according to a new study. The Italian study, published in the American Heart Association’s journal 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 and their diet was restricted to eliminate other sources of flavanols from foods and beverages. Those who had high and medium levels of flavanols in their drink did better on tests of attention and other mental skills, compared to people who had low amounts of flavanols.
Flavanols can be found in tea, grapes, red wine, apples and cocoa products and have been associated with a decreased risk of dementia. The researchers say flavanols may act on the brain structure and function directly by protecting neurons from injury, improving metabolism and their interaction with the molecular structure responsible for memory. Indirectly, flavanols may help by improving brain blood flow.
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 of Italy's University of L'Aquila.
However, he cautions that the results of the study may not apply to everyone with MCI. The study population was generally in good health without known cardiovascular disease so it would not be completely representative of all mild cognitive impairment patients. In addition, only some clinical features of mild cognitive impairment were explored in the study.Dr Laura Phipps at Alzheimer’s Research UK said via e-mail: "Cocoa-based treatments for brain function would likely have patients queuing out the door, but this small study of flavanols is not yet conclusive. It’s not clear from the research whether other factors may have been responsible for the improvements seen in the group of people who took part.This early-stage trial took place over a very short period, and it would be useful to see more long-term studies to investigate the lasting effects. Ultimately we would need to see the results of large-scale trials to know whether cocoa flavanols could help prevent or delay dementia."While we do not yet have a sure-fire way to prevent dementia, the best evidence for lowering your risk is to eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables. Regular exercise , keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol in check and not smoking have also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia."Neurologist and Alzheimer's disease researcher Dr Marc Gordon of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York says: "People need to be very careful about making broad-based dietary changes based on one study."The Italian study was supported by a grant from Mars Inc, which also supplied the powdered cocoa drinks that were used.