Eating cocoa antioxidants daily may improve mild cognitive impairment, according to new research in the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension. Mild cognitive impairment is a condition involving memory loss that can progress to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Antioxidants called flavanols are found in tea, grapes, red wine, apples and cocoa products and have been previously associated with a decreased risk of dementia. They're thought to help improve memory by by protecting brain cells from injury and improving brain blood flow.
In this study, 90 elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment were assigned to drink daily containing various levels of cocoa flavonols for eight weeks: 990 milligrams (high), 520 mg (intermediate) or 45 mg (low). Their diet was restricted to eliminate other sources of flavanols from foods and beverages other than the cocoa drink.
Cognitive function was examined by neuro-psychological tests of executive function, working memory, short-term memory, long-term episodic memory, processing speed and global cognition.
The researchers found:
- Scores significantly improved in the ability to relate visual stimuli to motor responses, working memory, task-switching and verbal memory for those drinking the high and intermediate flavanol drinks.
- Participants drinking daily higher levels of flavanol drinks had significantly higher overall cognitive scores than those participants drinking lower-levels.
- Insulin resistance, blood pressure and oxidative stress also decreased in those drinking high and intermediate levels of flavanols daily. Changes in insulin resistance explained about 40 percent of the composite scores for improvements in cognitive functioning.
"This study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally-balanced diet, could improve cognitive function," said the study lead researcher. "The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated by an improvement in insulin sensitivity. It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function."
Mars Inc., the candy maker, funded the study and provided the standardized cocoa drinks.
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