Columbia University scientists have a treat for chocolate lovers, announcing a new study that found a compound in chocolate called flavanols can sharpen your memory even after the natural age-related decline has begun.
Memory actually begins to degrade in early adulthood, but it doesn’t begin to impact daily life until after age 50 or later. Previous research has linked changes in a part of the brain called the dentate gyrus with memory issues, but this study strengthened that link, implicating these changes as the cause of memory problems, not merely an effect of them.
This research, which will be published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, also for the first time provided evidence that these changes can be reversed through diet.
Senior author Dr. Scott A. Small, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia, and colleagues built on previous research that had show flavanols improved neural connections within the dentate gyrus of mice.
For the study, 37 participants between ages 50 and 69 drank a beverage containing cocoa flavanols, which had been created specifically for the experiment. The drink was developed by Mars, Incorporated; the food company also partially funded the research.
Somewhat ironically, flavanols tend to be lost during most modern methods of cocoa processing.
The participants were assigned either to a flavanol-rich (900mg) or low-flavanol (10mg) diet for three months. Those getting the super dose were shown to have greater circulation in the dentate gyrus and performed significantly better on a 20-minute pattern-recognition exercise to test memory.
"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," said Small.
The team plans to repeat the study with a larger group.
If you’re not looking to add a chocolate bar to your daily diet, exercise has been proven to improve both memory and dentate gyrus function.
The flavanol drink used in the Columbia University study also improved heart health, significantly enough that another study is in the works by Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which will follow 18,000 men and women to find out whether flavanols can help prevent heart attacks and strokes.