Can two cups of hot chocolate per day boost your memory?

flavanolsThe elderly may benefit from two cups of cocoa per day, following the results of a new study published in the journal Neurology which shows that drinking two cups of hot chocolate each day gave older people a boost to their memory and thinking skills.

In the study, conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School in Boston, 60 people with an average age of 73 were assessed; none of whom had any problems with dementia. However, 18 were experiencing impaired blood flow at the beginning of the study. This was shown through ultrasound tests.

The participants were told to drink two cups of hot cocoa on a daily basis for 30 days and to not consume any chocolate during this period. Half were given cocoa rich in flavanol and the rest were given low-flavanol cocoa.

Flavanols are a distinct group of compounds in the flavonoid family and are naturally occurring antioxidants. They can be found in red wine and tea in addition to cocoa. For many years, health experts have raved about the positive effect that cocoa flavanols can have on the body’s vascular system. Flavanols are great for healthy blood flow as they stimulate the production of nitric oxide; a naturally produced chemical in the body that dilates blood vessels.

“We’re learning more about blood flow in the brain and its effect on thinking skills. As different areas of the brain need more energy to complete their tasks, they also need greater blood flow. This relationship, called neurovascular coupling, may play an important role in diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” said Dr Farzaneh Sorond, the study’s lead author from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

It was found that 88% of those who had impaired blood flow at the start of the study had experienced an improvement to their blood flow by an average of 8.3%. This is in comparison to 37% of people improving in a similar manner that had a normal blood flow at the beginning of the study.

In addition, those with a normal blood flow did not improve on tests that measured their thinking skills, however the 18 people with impaired blood flow did. The latter actually managed to reduce the time they required to complete tasks; dropping from an average of 167 seconds to 116 seconds for tasks such as connecting sequential dots on pieces of paper or recognising particular characters on computer screens.

There were no major statistical differences in blood flow or in test scores between the two hot chocolate groups that would favour flavonol-rich cocoa or vice versa and the researchers believe it may only require a small amount of flavanol to prove beneficial for those with impaired blood flow. Alternatively, they acknowledge that it could be another ingredient, such as caffeine, that is causing the changes.

Before people start bulk-buying large amounts of hot chocolate, the study authors urge caution. “We’re several steps removed from that recommendation. Before we recommend cocoa, it’s important to go back and figure out what’s in it that’s doing this and make sure it’s sustainable,” says Dr Sorond.

Moreover, consuming large amounts of a sugary drink will invariably lead to a risk of tooth decay and weight gain/obesity – with the latter also linked to cognitive problems in itself.

The Alzheimer’s Association issued a statement yesterday criticising the study and its implications.

“This is a very small and very preliminary study, and it is not well-designed as a test of an intervention or therapy,” said Maria Carrillo, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the association. She added: “No one should start drinking cocoa with the expectation that it will provide cognitive benefits based on this study. There was no control group in this study to compare to the group that drank the cocoa.”

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