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The Cognitive Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols

As we age, preserving memory and cognitive abilities is a top priority. Emerging research suggests regularly consuming flavanols, antioxidants found in cocoa beans and other plant foods, may help maintain brain health. However, while recent studies are promising, the brain-boosting powers of cocoa require careful interpretation.

Flavanols are a type of phytonutrient known as polyphenols. Along with antioxidant properties, research indicates flavanols influence signaling pathways and blood flow in the brain. A recent large-scale study found older adults taking cocoa flavanol supplements for 3 years experienced modest improvements in memory and cognitive test performance compared to a placebo group. Those with low dietary antioxidant intake saw the greatest gains. While more research is needed, these findings suggest cocoa flavanols may counteract nutritional deficiencies linked to cognitive decline.

Key Takeaways from the Cocoa Flavanol Study

The three-year study followed over 3,500 healthy older adults from across the United States. Participants were randomly assigned daily 500mg cocoa flavanol supplements or a placebo. The cocoa flavanols were extracted from cocoa beans to provide a concentrated dose. Participants’ memory and thinking skills were assessed annually through well-validated pen-and-paper tests.

After three years, the flavanol group showed small but statistically significant enhancements in overall test performance. However, when researchers analyzed based on dietary antioxidant intake, differences emerged. For those with low antioxidant diets, flavanol supplementation led to substantial improvements in test scores after just one year. This 16% enhancement suggests flavanols may counteract nutritional deficiencies linked to age-related cognitive decline.

While promising, it is important not to overstate the results. Overall gains were modest, and medical oversight is advised when supplementing with flavanols long-term due to potential risks at high doses. Additionally, cocoa should not be singled out as a miracle food. A healthy, balanced diet full of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes supplies a diverse range of antioxidants and phytonutrients that work synergistically to support cognition.

Flavanol Consumption Through Cocoa and Other Foods

Cocoa has one of the highest flavanol concentrations of all foods. However, while cocoa is rich in flavanols, consuming excessive chocolate is ill-advised due to added sugar and fat. The 500mg daily dose used in the study cannot be obtained through chocolate alone. To achieve these levels, concentrated cocoa extract supplements were used. While such supplements demonstrated benefits for low-antioxidant consumers, obtaining flavanols through whole foods is ideal.

Aside from cocoa, flavonols are found in varying levels in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, tea, herbs, and red wine. Intake also depends on growing conditions and processing methods. Minimally processed dark chocolate retains more flavanols than milk chocolate. For fruits and vegetables, exposure to sunlight lowers flavanol content. Incorporating a diverse array of colorful plant foods in your diet helps ensure adequate flavanol intake to support brain health.

Flavanols as Part of a Lifestyle to Support Cognitive Vitality

While promising evidence indicates cocoa flavanols may help counteract age-related cognitive decline, especially for those with low antioxidant intake, no single food offers a magic bullet. Along with consuming a phytonutrient-rich diet, several lifestyle factors influence cognitive health.

Aerobic exercise improves blood flow and energy metabolism in the brain. Mental stimulation through challenging activities increases cognitive reserve. Stress management protects neurons and enables better sleep, a time when memories consolidate. Social engagement keeps the mind active and the mood upbeat.

Therefore, a multidimensional approach is ideal for sustaining cognitive abilities. Incorporate activity and community with brain-beneficial foods and activities you enjoy, while also managing stress. Adopt lifestyle habits that provide physical, mental, and social enrichment to retain your cognitive vitality as you age.

Wrapping Up

The biological mechanisms linking flavanols to improved cognition are well-established. Flavanols stimulate blood flow and neuron signaling pathways in brain regions related to learning and memory. Benefits are especially clear for those with nutritional deficiencies. More research is underway, including exploring optimal dosing and delivery methods.

In conclusion, incorporating foods and beverages rich in flavanols like cocoa and green tea as part of a phytonutrient-rich diet may offer cognitive perks. However, moderate consumption is advised, and flavanols are just one component of leading a lifestyle to support brain health as you age. A multidimensional approach to wellness across mental, physical and social realms is ideal for sustaining cognitive abilities over time.

About the author

Holden Desalles is a journalist in the new wellness space, covering topics such as CBD, adaptogens, and nootropics. He was formerly a staff writer at the millennial lifestyle website Thought Catalog.

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