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Cocoa could keep dementia at bay

14th August 2012

The brain function of elderly people could be boosted by a daily dose of cocoa, according to researchers in Italy.

Old Woman 400

A daily intake of the flavanols in cocoa could improve mild cognitive impairment--a common condition in people over 70--and ward off its progression to dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

In a study involving 90 elderly people with mild cognitive impairment, participants were given high, medium or low doses of a milky cocoa drink over a period of eight weeks.

The participants also ate a diet designed to restrict their intake of flavanols from other food sources, which can include tea, grapes, red wine, apples and cocoa products.

Their cognitive function was assessed using neuro-psychological tests of executive function, working memory, short-term memory, long-term episodic memory, processing speed and global cognition.

The group who drank the higher dosed cocoa showed significantly higher overall results in these tests.

They also had lower levels of insulin resistance, lower blood pressure and oxidative stress, which is associated with ageing.

Around 40% of the higher results in cognitive tests were explained by lowered insulin resistance levels.

Writing in the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension, the researchers said they had found encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols as part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally-balanced diet could improve cognitive function.

According to study lead author Giovambattista Desideri, who directs the Geriatric Division, Department of Life, Health and Environmental Sciences at the University of L'Aquila in Italy, the positive effects on cognitive function may be mainly mediated by an improvement in insulin sensitivity.

Desideri said it was still unclear whether the improvements in cognition were a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular functioning.

He said the role of cocoa flavanols in preventing or slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia was worthy of further research, given the global rise in cognitive disorders.

Researchers now needed to carry out a larger study to validate the team's findings and to establish the amount of dietary cocoa flavanols that are needed to feel the benefits, as well as to work out exactly how the long the positive effects last,  he said.

Mild cognitive impairment can include difficulty with memory, language, thinking, or judgment.

The team concluded that flavanols could be one element of a dietary approach to the maintaining and improving not only of cardiovascular health, but also specifically brain health.

However, experts cautioned people against thinking that they should start eating chocolate every day on the basis of a single study.

 

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