MONDAY, Aug. 13, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A cocoa drink rich in flavanols -- the same antioxidants found in chocolate -- may help people with mild memory problems improve their brain function, according to Italian researchers.
Flavanols are found in tea, grapes, red wine, apples and especially in cocoa plants and are associated with a decreased risk of dementia, the researchers said.
"The prevention of dementia has to be started early in the life through a healthy lifestyle including adequate cardiovascular risk-factor control, regular physical activity, weight control and a calorie-controlled and nutritionally balanced diet," said lead researcher Dr. Giovambattista Desideri, director of the geriatric division in the department of life, health and environmental sciences at the University of L'Aquila.
"In this context, regular cocoa flavanol consumption seems to represent an effective strategy in preserving brain and cardiovascular health and function," he said.
Flavanols' ability to help maintain brain function may arise from their ability to protect brain cells, improve brain metabolism and blood flow, which helps preserve memory, the researchers said.
The report was published online Aug. 13 in Hypertension.
For the study, funded by the candy maker, Mars Inc., the researchers assigned 90 elderly patients with mild memory impairment to consume a drink containing either 990 milligrams (mg), 520 mg or 45 mg of cocoa flavanols each day for eight weeks.
The researchers assessed participants' brain function with a variety of tests.
People consuming the high and intermediate amounts of flavanol showed significant improvement on some of the tests, the study found. They scored better on measures including hand-eye coordination, working and verbal memory, and verbal fluency than those in the low-flavanol group.
About 40 percent of the improved mental scores were the result of lowered insulin resistance seen in the higher-flavanol groups, the study said. These participants also had reduced blood sugar and blood pressure, and lower levels of a marker for oxidative damage to the cells.
These data are in agreement with a consistent body of data from literature that consumption of flavonoid-rich foods -- including dark chocolate -- is associated with a reduction of insulin resistance, according to study background information. "In other words, cocoa flavanols are able to improve control of blood sugar," Desideri said.
"Given the global rise in cognitive [brain] disorders due to progressive 'graying' of population in Western countries, our findings provide encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols could represent a useful intervention for preserving mental health," he said.
It is important to note this study was not done with chocolate, but with lower-calorie, nutritionally balanced drinks rich in cocoa flavanols, Desideri said.
"Based on the current explosion of obesity, which is particularly evident in children, we should be careful when recommending chocolate ingestion to our patients," he said. "In real life, the progressive increment of body weight due to an unbalanced diet is likely to counterbalance the positive effects of cocoa on vascular function."
Dr. Sam Gandy, associate director of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said that "the study is interesting but requires replication before it can be taken seriously."
"The lifestyle intervention with the strongest science behind it is physical exercise," he said. "I would recommend physical exercise before I would recommend chocolate."
While the study found an association between cocoa flavanols and mental function scores, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
For more about dementia, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.