Wouldn’t it be great if something you really love to eat, and which everyone has always said is bad for you, suddenly turned out to have some real benefit? That unlikely scenario appears to be playing out currently, as scientists are discovering some surprising properties of chocolate – specifically its ability to maintain cognitive ability and to assist with functions such as memory, attention span, and executive functions. Home caregivers for the elderly can now have a clear conscience in allowing their charges that guilty pleasure chocolate bar, because it may just be doing a lot more than satisfying a sweet tooth.
In recent years, a considerable amount of research has focused on cognitive decline, because the U.S. population has become one dominated by the elderly, many of whom are eventually plagued with symptoms of dementia. While earlier research demonstrated clear benefits for improving cardiovascular function, more recent findings are beginning to strongly suggest that cognitive abilities can be protected by the flavonoids abundant in cocoa beans. Flavonoids are well-known for containing high percentages of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories, both excellent contributors to good health.
Specific benefits from cocoa beans
With a great deal of research still underway in this area, it has already become clear that there are some considerable advantages to having a daily intake of chocolate:
- significantly decreased risk of decline in cognitive abilities, and less tendency toward dementia
- reduced occurrence of impairment in cognitive functions, e.g. memory, verbal fluency
- greater potential for increased cognitive ability, as demonstrated over a decade-long study
- within the framework of the normal aging process, better performance in areas where cognition is involved
- improvements in blood pressure rates and insulin resistance.
While the precise mechanisms which provide these benefits to the body have yet to be pinpointed, it is becoming clear nonetheless that there are definite enhancements and protections to be gained for senior cognitive abilities, stemming from regular ingestion of cocoa products. However, it is important to note that the studies conducted have shown that all derived benefits depend on two major factors:
- the intake of cocoa products must be maintained over a significant period of time, at least eight consecutive weeks in length
- the amount of flavonoids included in the cocoa product is critical to achieving any benefit – if less than the required amount, little or no improvement was noted, whereas amounts over the necessary threshold seemed to trigger all potential benefits.
The Italian study
One particular study conducted at the University of L’Aquila in Italy, focused on the effects of imbibing a cocoa drink daily for eight consecutive weeks. The participants were all aged at least 65 years, and all had some mild form of cognitive impairment before the study even began. Prior to the study, each senior person was tested in several areas which required cognitive function, with detailed scores assigned to performance, for the purpose of establishing individual baselines.
At the conclusion of the eight-week period, the same tests were undertaken by all seniors, and in almost all cases, their scores showed significant improvement. The importance of these findings can hardly be overstated – cocoa products appear to have the ability to not only reduce decline, but to actually restore lost cognitive ability.
The Maine study
In a much broader study, conducted over a 30-year period with almost 1,000 participants, Professor Merrill Elias and a team of researchers at the University of Maine, sought to chronicle the effects of long-term cocoa consumption, and its effects on cognitive ability. Participants were aged 23-98 as the study began, and none had any cognitive impairment at the outset. As in the Italian study, tests were administered at the very beginning, and then periodically throughout the course of the very long research frame. In virtually every case, scores increased in all of these testing areas:
- spatial organization and visual recognition of objects
- ability to remember words and various language factors
- ability to focus on specific objects and track them through spatial constructs.
How to obtain benefits from cocoa
Doctors caution people not to misinterpret results from these very promising studies, and cause more harm than good in the process. Because these benefits are available in specific forms, it will be necessary to be fairly selective about what to ingest and how much to ingest. No one should understand this information as an encouragement to dashing off to the nearest candy store and loading up on chocolate bars.
In truth, those aren’t even good sources for the best benefits of cocoa. Dark chocolate is by far the better choice, because it contains many more of the flavonols which provide the health benefits, and among dark chocolates the best ones to consume are those with at least 70% cocoa content. Many Americans are already dreadfully overweight, and can ill afford to exacerbate the situation with additional calories found in ordinary milk chocolate bars. Dark chocolate has a much sharper taste than milk chocolate, but many people who already enjoy dark chocolate have found that it takes less of it to satisfy, because the flavor is so concentrated.
In some of the studies mentioned, cocoa drinks were the specific medium used to induce the effects measured, and to gain the same kind of benefits the best form of cocoa to drink would be unsweetened natural cocoa powder. This limits the number of calories being ingested, while still providing the maximum benefit from the flavonols contained therein.