New research by the American Academy of Neurology found that consuming two cups of hot chocolate a day may help elderly adults who are experiencing impaired blood flow to have healthier brains and improved thinking skills.
“The brain is a greedy organ, with just 2 percent of body mass and 20 percent of energy requirements,” explained Andrew Scholey, director of the Center for Human Psychopharmacology at Swinburne University in Australia. “It requires a constant supply of blood to deliver the metabolic fuels of glucose and oxygen. Blood flow to the brain reduces with aging, and this correlates with cognitive [mental] decline.”
“We’re learning more about blood flow in the brain and its effect on thinking skills,” said study author Dr. Faraneh Sorond, of Harvard Medical School. “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.”
In the United States, more than 5.2 million people have Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. That number is expected to climb to 13.8 million by 2050, a March report from the Alzheimer’s Association found.
In previous studies, it’s been proven that cocoa, which is found in chocolate also has health benefits. Often dark chocolate is linked to reduced blood pressure, lower risk for stroke, better cholesterol levels and even benefits in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition in which people have difficulties with memory and are at raised risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The researchers recruited 60 people with an average age of 73 and assigned them to 30 days of either drinking cocoa rich in flavanol — which is linked to improved blood flow — or drinking cocoa low in flavanol.
Eighteen people had impaired blood flow in the brain when the study began. Almost all of the 60 participants had high blood pressure and half had a form of diabetes. Almost all — 85 percent — were white.
Brain blood flow improved by an average of 8 percent by the end of the study in those participants whose levels were low at the beginning. There was no effect among the others who had normal blood flow.
“The scientific significance of our study is not so much that cocoa improves neurovascular coupling, but that we have a biomarker (neurovascular coupling) which may be useful in identifying individuals at risk of cognitive impairment in the pre-clinical state when interventions such as cocoa and other potential agents may prevent disease progression,” Sorond said.
“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,” said study author Dr. Farzaneh Sorond, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “I’d prefer people wait until we figure out how to get the benefit without the calories, sugar and fat that comes in cocoa.”
The study was published in the Aug. 7 online issue of the journal Neurology.