I can’t be the only person on Earth who loves a good cup of cocoa in the evening (or the morning), especially with a little dollop of whipped cream on top, and particularly in the fall and winter when the weather is chilling. Since we’ve heard a lot of good things about the health benefits of chocolate lately, it’s even nebulously justifiable as a health food, and recently, we heard even more good news: cocoa may help to prevent memory decline.
Given that many people share worries about dementia and losing their memories in old age, especially as people live longer, memory research like this is particularly important right now, especially when it involves doctors telling us to eat more chocolate!
Before you rush to the grocery store to pick up milk and a tin of your favorite cocoa brand, you might want to check out the details of the study, because there are a few catches. Isn’t that always the case?
Farzaneh A. Sorond, MD, PhD, Shelley Hurwitz, PhD, David H. Salat, PhD, Douglas N. Greve, PhD and Naomi D.L. Fisher, MD looked at 60 seniors, assessing them with both magnetic resonance imaging (in some cases) and mental state examinations. They found that in those who consumed cocoa regularly over a 30 day period, increased neurovascular coupling (a fancy way of saying that they had better bloodflow to their brains), which improves cognitive function, was observed.
Their cocoa-drinking subjects performed better on mental state exams and in some cases experienced improvements if they’d entered the study with minor bloodflow impairments. That would seem to suggest that drinking cocoa could help older adults keep their brains sharp — the participants in this study had an average age of 73 — and that cocoa could just be a legitimate addition to the daily routine.
But the brain is complicated, and researchers have identified numerous factors that have an influence on cognitive function. These include genetics, diet, activity levels, reading, getting adequate rest and socializing. Simply adding two cups of cocoa a day may not make that much of a difference, and could come with its own risks, as the dairy-based beverage carries a significant calorie load, especially when made with full-fat milk and decorated with whipped cream or other delightful toppings.
Additionally, while the study shows a correlation between cocoa consumption and improved cognition, what it doesn’t show is causation. The researchers didn’t determine what aspect of regular cocoa consumption might be responsible for the results, and this is a key piece of the puzzle. Is it the chocolate? The milk? Compounds in the chocolate that could be isolated? Drinking warm beverages at a particular time of day?
What this study, as with others on cognition and memory, illustrates is that the likely solution to managing aging minds probably includes a complex mixture of actions to help people maintain their health and cognitive function.
Patients at risk of memory problems need to receive a careful evaluation of their risk factors and discuss options with their physicians to decide on the best course of action for their situation; for example, someone who can’t do load-bearing exercise might take up swimming, and could join a swimming club for socializing opportunities to address the isolation that can accompany aging. And if the swimming club happens to go out for cocoa together after practice now and then…well, that might not be such a bad idea.
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