There is a constant flow of research showing more and more health benefits for chocolate. Now, studies are reporting that this tasty treat can actually reverse cognitive decline in older adults. And reduce blood pressure and insulin sensitivity to boot.
A 2012 Italian clinical trial called the Cocoa Cognition and Aging Study is the first scientific examination of how consumption of cocoa flavonols can affect cognition in older people.1 Cocoa flavonols are the ingredients that give chocolate its healthy properties.
The study included 90 people, ages 65 to 85, who had mild cognitive impairment but not dementia. The participants who consumed a drink with the most cocoa flavonols daily for eight weeks had notably better scores on cognition and verbal fluency tests.
In addition, the people who drank the cocoa beverage with a high or intermediate amount of cocoa flavonols had lower blood pressure and insulin resistance than the people who consumed the least flavonols.
A recent follow-up to that study found that cocoa flavonols can do even more for our brains. The researchers found that daily consumption of a cocoa flavonol beverage substantially reversed age-related memory decline in healthy people ages 50 to 69.2
“If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30- or 40-year-old,” said lead study author Dr. Scott Small of the Columbia University Medical Center.
Keep in mind these studies used specially formulated cocoa flavonol-containing drinks. You can get the same effects from eating chocolate, but you need to be careful. Unfortunately, many methods of processing cocoa remove a lot of the flavonols found in the raw plant.
Bitter is better (and why you might like it more than you think)
The best approach for getting the benefits of cocoa flavonols is to consume moderate amounts of dark chocolate with as little added sugar as possible. Or you can drink hot or cold dark-chocolate beverages. After all, the Mayans traditionally consumed chocolate as a beverage, as did the Spanish who “discovered” it in the 16th century. Solid chocolates were not widely available until the late 18th century.
Either way, you’re better off avoiding the less-nutritious milk chocolate or white chocolate.
You may think you won’t like dark chocolate because it does not have as much sugar and milk as “milk chocolate.” But you may be surprised. A recent study conducted—perhaps unsurprisingly—at Penn State Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, found that even self-professed milk chocolate lovers enjoy dark chocolate, once they give it a chance.3
The researchers enrolled 99 participants in the study. At the outset, about half the participants said they preferred sweeter, milk chocolate. And the other half said they preferred darker, “semi-sweet” chocolate. (Indeed, science bears this out. In fact, we know that some people have highly sensitive taste buds. And they can detect bitterness far more strongly in foods than people with less sensitive taste buds can.)
The researchers randomly gave out five different chocolate samples. The samples contained 35 percent, 50 percent, 65 percent, 80 percent, or 100 percent natural cocoa powder. Then they recorded the participants’ responses.
Overall, more women than men preferred darker chocolate. About 20 percent of the total group accepted the 100 percent cocoa powder. This makes sense, as this powder tastes the most bitter. In fact, it has no sweetness to it at all.
About 20 percent of group also accepted the 80 percent cocoa powder samples. But here’s the interesting part…
It didn’t make a difference whether they were self-professed milk chocolate lovers or dark chocolate lovers. About the same number of people who said they preferred milk chocolate as those who said they preferred dark chocolate accepted the highly bitter, 80 percent cocoa powder sample.
So therein lies the lesson.
Even if you think you’re a milk chocolate lover, you can probably tolerate a more bitter chocolate…something with at least 65 to 80 percent cacao. If you already like the taste of dark chocolate, try some with 100 percent cacao and see what you think.
1Desideri G, et al. Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) study. Hypertension. 2012 Sep;60(3):794-801. doi: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.112.193060. Epub 2012 Aug 14.
2Brickman AM, et al. Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Nat Neurosci. 2014 Dec;17(12):1798-803. doi: 10.1038/nn.3850. Epub 2014 Oct 26.
3 Harwood ML, et al. Tolerance for high flavanol cocoa powder in semisweet chocolate. Nutrients. 2013;5(6):2258-2267.