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Cocoa flavanols reduce memory loss from aging, study shows

Cocoa flavanols

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(NaturalNews) Antioxidant flavanols naturally found in cocoa may be able to reverse some age-related memory loss, according to a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The study was conducted by researchers from Columbia University, New York University and Mars, Inc.

Previous research by scientists including Dr. Scott A. Small, MD, senior author of the new study, has shown that age-related memory loss is associated with changes that take place in the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain located within the hippocampus. Notably, early-stage Alzheimer's disease is believed to affect a different region of the hippocampus, known as the entorhinal cortex. This suggests, the authors reasoned, that different mechanisms underlie "normal" memory loss and the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's.

Not all researchers agree that there is any such thing as normal memory loss, however. A study conducted by researchers from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and published in the journal Neurology in 2010 followed 350 Catholic priests, nuns and brothers for an average of 13 years and then autopsied them after death. The researchers found signs of brain damage in all participants who had exhibited signs of memory loss. Not all the damage, however, was due to Alzheimer's disease.

Memory and brain activity improve

Because prior studies had shown that cocoa flavanols could improve neural connections in the dentate gyri of mouse brains, the researchers sought to see whether those flavanols could influence memory in human beings. The new study focused on the type of cognitive decline typically associated with normal aging rather than with Alzheimer's disease. This cognitive decline is characterized by a decline in learning ability and decreased ability to remember specific things such as new names or where objects such as keys or cars have been left. Studies have shown that such cognitive decline can begin in early adulthood but usually does not affect quality of life until the 50s at the earliest.

Because chocolate manufactures usually strip most of the flavanols from the cocoa used, the researchers used a special cocoa-flavanol-rich drink manufactured by Mars, Inc., for research purposes. Thirty-seven healthy volunteers between the ages of 50 and 69 were then randomly assigned to a diet either low or high in flavanols, containing either 10 mg or 900 mg per day respectively. At the start and conclusion of the study, participants took part in memory tests and had their brains imaged with a test that measures blood flow to the dentate gyrus. The memory test, which measured pattern recognition, was designed to evaluate a form of memory believed to be controlled by the dentate gyrus.

Participants who consumed the flavanol-rich diet showed significant increases in dentate gyrus activity and improved performance on the memory test, compared with those who drank the placebo beverage.

"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," Dr. Small said.

Flavanol research booming

The study suffered from several weaknesses that could be corrected if the research were replicated, including a small sample size, financial support from Mars, Inc., and participation of a researcher employed by Mars.

Mars, Inc. has long-term research and commercial interests in chocolate, cocoa flavanols and cocoa procyanidins.

Other funders of the study include the National Institutes of Health, the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the McKnight Brain Research Foundation.

Numerous studies have shown that, in addition to being antioxidants, flavanols (also found in high levels in green tea and in some fruits and vegetables) may have a wide variety of health benefits. A large clinical trial will soon examine whether flavanols can prevent heart attack and stroke.





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