The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Want to Stop Aging? Eat More Chocolate.

Want to Stop Aging? Eat More Chocolate.

Health and Wellness

May 28, 2015

Could eating a chocolate bar a day keep you young? As it turns out, yes – at least when it comes to your brain. Including flavanol-containing foods, like chocolate, in your diet may help counteract cognitive changes associated with brain aging, according to a recent study from The University of L’Aquila and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 

Researchers looked at 90 elderly individuals without clinical evidence of cognitive dysfunction who were randomly assigned to consume daily for eight weeks a drink containing high, intermediate or low levels or cocoa flavanols. Using three tests, cognitive function was assessed at baseline, and then again at eight weeks. In particular, subjects were randomly assigned to consume a drink containing approximately 50, 500, or 1000 milligrams of cocoa flavanols each day. In almost all of the outcomes measured, increasing daily flavanol consumption (~500 and ~1000 mg/day) was found to impart health benefits. 

Of particular interest were the improvements in cognition and insulin sensitivity. As a point of reference, one serving of dark chocolate – if carefully processed – may contain about 100 milligrams of flavanols. 

“Our study demonstrates that the regular inclusion of cocoa flavanols in the diet can lead to improvements in specific aspects of cognitive function among older adults with no evidence of cognitive dysfunction or with early memory dysfunction. The data deriving from our Cocoa Cognition and Aging (CoCoA) project provide promising evidence to support the important role of diet, and specific bioactives in the diet, in maintaining and improving not only cardiovascular health but also specifically brain health,” says study author Dr. Giovambattista Desideri.

While the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) tests showed no change, Verbal Fluency Test (VFT) scores improved significantly among all groups, with the magnitude of improvement in the VFT score greater in the high level flavanol groups than in the intermediate and low level groups. There were also significant changes in the time required to complete the Trail Making Test (TMT), with the high level group completing their test significantly faster than the low level group. (The TMT looks at task switching and visual attention, the MMSE measures cognitive impairment and the VFT measures how many words a participant can say in a given amount of time.)

Additionally significant was the reduction in insulin concentrations in both the high level and intermediate level groups. There was reduction in insulin concentrations, though to a lesser extent, in the low level flavanol group too. Another added bonus was a significant reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol.

“A growing body of evidence from our study and other groups indicate that cocoa flavanols supplementation, provided both as flavanol rich chocolate and as a specific mixture of flavanols found in cocoa, could improve insulin sensitivity. The benefits on insulin sensitivity are mainly due to the amount of flavanol content. Obviously, it is fundamental to also avoid weight gain since in this case the potential benefits of cocoa flavanols intake on insulin sensitivity would be completely abolished. In this regard, the current study was not done with chocolate but with specially-prepared test materials high in cocoa flavanols,” says Desideri.

Alzheimer’s disease has been recently considered to be, at least in part, a neuroendocrine disorder, even referred to by some as type 3 diabetes, says Desideri. Insulin is known to affect numerous brain functions, including cognition and memory. On the other hand, several clinical studies have established links between cognitive dysfunction, insulin resistance and diabetes mellitus. From a pathophysiological point of view, insulin resistance seems to have the biological potential to influence the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie the pathology of dementia. 

Also, over the past decade, there has been an accumulating body of evidence that indicates that the consumption of cocoa flavanol-containing products can improve vascular function. Though much research has focused on the cardiovascular system, there is reason to believe that some of the benefits of cocoa flavanol consumption could additionally extend to the brain, which is a heavily vascularized tissue that depends on regular blood flow to meet its metabolic demands. 

“It is clear from our latest research and other recent studies that cocoa flavanols could have profound effects on brain function. Further studies are needed to evaluate how cocoa flavanols work and how long the effects last. If these further studies confirm the findings that brain health can be improved by consuming dietary flavanols, it may have the potential to affect the daily lives of a lot of people world-wide,” says Desideri. “Habitual intake of flavanols – considered in the setting of a globally healthy lifestyle – can support healthy cognitive function with age.”