For years, scientists have been trying to prove that chocolate is good for us. The idea was based on more than the desires of a sweet-toothed scientist—cocoa is high in antioxidants known as flavanols. But proving those hypothetical health benefits hasn’t been easy.
Now, there’s new evidence to suggest that chocolate dramatically improves the memory skills that people lose with age. When healthy people between the ages of 50 and 69 drank a mixture high in cocoa flavanols for three months, they performed about 25% better on a memory test compared to a control group of participants.
Dr. Scott A. Small, a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center, led the study, which was funded by the chocolate company Mars, the National Institutes of Health, and two other research foundations. The results were published yesterday in Nature Neuroscience.
Here’s Pam Belluck, writing for The New York Times:
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.
While the study supports the idea that cocoa flavanols help reverse age-related memory decline, it probably won’t ward off Alzheimer’s. The participants didn’t show any marked difference in the functioning of the entorhinal cortex, which is impaired in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The distinction shows that age-related and Alzheimer’s-related memory loss are not the same thing, and that flavanols won’t have an effect on cognitive disease.
Even if you don’t have Alzheimer’s, though, binging on any old chocolate this Halloween will help you remember where you left your keys. Milk chocolate won’t help since processing usually removes the key flanvanol epicatechin. Eating dark chocolate may not help much, either. To ingest the same amount of epicatechin as the study group, you’d have to consume the equivalent of about seven average-sized bars a day, which would probably invite other health problems.
Experts have other qualms about the study, including whether or not participants’ overall diet was account for, but the new study is at least a step forward in understanding dark chocolate’s rich rewards.