Flavanol-rich Cocoa May Improve Brain Function in Mild Cognitive Impairment

Researchers in Italy have found consuming flavanol-rich cocoa once a day may help improve brain function in people with mild cognitive impairment. The study is published in the journal Hypertension.

The study at the University of L’Aquila followed 90 older people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) for eight weeks. MCI is a condition that causes problems with memory and thinking skills, although not to an extent that interferes with everyday life. Roughly half of people with MCI will go on to develop dementia within five years of diagnosis.

Over the course of the study, the participants were given a dairy-based drink rich in cocoa flavanols – naturally occurring antioxidants – once a day. Members of the group were given either a ‘low dose’ drink containing 45mg of flavanols, an intermediate dose of 520mg or a high dose of 990mg each day.

The researchers also carried out a series of tests to assess the participants’ memory and thinking skills, and found those taking the highest dose of flavanols had significantly better scores than those drinking the lowest level. Those in the high and intermediate groups also performed better on some tests than those in the ‘low dose’ group, and had decreased insulin resistance, lower blood pressure and a reduction in free radicals – molecules that can be harmful to cells in excessive amounts.

The researchers believe their findings may suggest high levels of cocoa flavanols, as part of a healthy diet, may be helpful for brain function. They argue that further research is needed to discover whether cocoa flavanols may help prevent or slow the onset of dementia.

Dr Laura Phipps at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Cocoa-based treatments for brain function would likely have patients queuing out the door, but this small study of flavanols is not yet conclusive. It’s not clear from the research whether other factors may have been responsible for the improvements seen in the group of people who took part. This early-stage trial took place over a very short period, and it would be useful to see more long-term studies to investigate the lasting effects. Ultimately we would need to see the results of large-scale trials to know whether cocoa flavanols could help prevent or delay dementia.

“While we do not yet have a sure-fire way to prevent dementia, the best evidence for lowering your risk is to eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables. Regular exercise, keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol in check and not smoking have also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia.

“Currently 820,000 people are affected by dementia in the UK and with that number rising, we urgently need to find a way to prevent the condition – but this can only come through research.”

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