A study conducted by researchers from the University of L’Aquila in Italy and Mars, Incorporated provides compelling new evidence that the regular consumption of dietary cocoa flavanols may improve cognitive function in elderly subjects with early memory decline. Just published online in the journal Hypertension, this current study significantly advances understanding of the benefits of flavanols by specifically exploring the impact of regular cocoa flavanol consumption on cognitive function in a population with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Previous research has suggested that the benefits of cocoa flavanols could extend to the brain. However, these studies were either only short-term or did not demonstrate a consistent cognitive benefit. This unique study addresses this gap and provides important insights into the possibility of slowing or even reversing cognitive declines associated with aging through consumption of these natural compounds.
Flavanols are a group of natural compounds that are particularly abundant in cocoa. A significant body of published research has shown that consumption of cocoa flavanols helps support healthy circulation and cardiovascular health.
“For the first time, regular cocoa flavanol consumption has been shown to positively affect cognitive function in older adults with early memory decline,” commented study author Dr. Giovambattista Desideri, Director of the Geriatric Division of the University of L’Aquila. “Importantly, the improvements in cognitive function were seen over a relatively short period of time; and, while further research is required to confirm and expand on these findings, this provides encouraging evidence that regular consumption of cocoa flavanols might be effective in improving cognitive function in elderly subjects with Mild Cognitive Impairment. The findings provide promising indications that the development of novel dietary approaches for improving health as we age – especially cognitive health – is a real possibility.”
The researchers tested the hypothesis that regular consumption of a drink containing cocoa flavanols would be effective in improving cognitive performance in subjects with MCI. MCI is a condition in which an individual experiences memory loss to a greater extent than one would expect for his or her age, but this is not so severe that it interferes with everyday activities. It is estimated that up to 20% of adults aged 65 or older have MCI, and recent evidence indicates that more than 6% of adults aged 70-89 develop the condition each year.
In this well-controlled, double-blind study, 90 healthy, older adults with MCI were randomly assigned to consume once daily for eight weeks a cocoa flavanol drink containing high (HF), intermediate (IF) or low (LF) amounts of cocoa flavanols (approximately 990 mg, 520 mg or 45 mg of cocoa flavanols, respectively). Normal diets were otherwise maintained. The cocoa drinks were all designed to be indistinguishable in taste and appearance, as well as calorically and nutritionally-matched. This enabled the blinding of product identities throughout the study, a critical point often overlooked in nutrition research. The cocoa flavanol drinks given to the HF and IF groups were produced by Mars using its patented Cocoapro® process, while the LF drink was made with a highly processed, alkalized cocoa powder.
The research team assessed cognitive function using a battery of standard tests that examined various aspects of memory, cognitive processing speed, executive function, as well as global cognition. The time required to complete Trail Making Test A and B – tests that examine processing speed, working memory, and executive function – was significantly improved following eight weeks of regular consumption of either the IF or HF drinks. Amazingly, the researchers measured a reduction of up to 30% in response times of the study participants who consumed these flavanol-rich drinks. Scores on the Verbal Fluency Test (VFT), which is commonly used as a measure of executive function and language, were also significantly better. Specifically, improvements were demonstrated in both the HF and IF groups and to a lesser extent in the LF group. An integrative measure of overall cognitive function – the z score – was only improved among individuals in the IF and HF groups; no evidence of improvement was demonstrated among those consuming the LF drink.
In addition, the study demonstrated significant reductions in blood pressure after the eight-week period in both the HF and IF groups, findings that are consistent with several previously published studies. A reduction in insulin resistance was also evident among individuals in these groups, an effect that was strongly linked with the improvements in cognitive function, suggesting an influential role of glucose metabolism.
“We already understand how important diet is to health, and previous research has provided consistent evidence of the benefits of cocoa flavanol consumption for cardiovascular health,” said Catherine Kwik-Uribe, a study author and R&D Director at Mars Botanical. “The results of this latest research build on these earlier findings and provide promising indication that diets that contain cocoa flavanols may offer significant benefits as we age. This is of great interest given the aging populations in much of the developed world.”
The Executive Director of the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science, Harold Schmitz, added, “Over the past 18 months, our understanding of cocoa flavanols and their benefits has grown considerably due to our ongoing fundamental research focused on linking chemistry with human health. This approach has enabled significant scientific advancements, and may one day lead to meaningful dietary recommendations for cocoa flavanol intake.”
The research has been published in Hypertension and is available online at http://hyper.ahajournals.org. The study authors are Giovambattista Desideri, MD; Catherine Kwik-Uribe, PhD; Davide Grassi, MD, PhD; Stefano Necozione, MD; Lorenzo Ghiadoni, MD; Daniela Mastroiacovo, MD; Angelo Raffaele, MD; Livia Ferri, MD; Raffaella Bocale, MD; Maria Carmela Lechiara, MD; Carmine Marini, MD and Claudio Ferri, MD.
This work was supported by Mars, Incorporated and is part of a wider collaborative research program focused on examining the health benefits of cocoa flavanols.
In collaboration with some of the world’s leading scientific institutions, Mars, Incorporated has been pursuing extensive research to advance understanding of cocoa flavanols for over 20 years.