A nice mug of cocoa can help your brain, according to the results of a new study. The 90 elderly subjects who drank cocoa fro eight weeks showed improvement on cognitive tasks when they got antioxidant compounds found in chocolate.
The antioxidants the researchers looked at, called flavanols, are believed to be involved in the formation of nitric oxide. Flavanols have some link to memory and problem-solving abilities. These abilities often decline with age. Flavanols also have been observed to have some benefit in improving mathematical abilities.
Nitric oxide widens blood vessels and helps prevent hypertension and stroke, but researchers also believe it increases blood flow to and within the brain. This improves brain function, allowing it to operate more efficiently.
Experts are cautioning that this is only a single study, and it is unknown how broadly the results can be applied. The result appears to be linked to a slight improvement in insulin sensitivity, meaning it improves physical as well as mental health. However, all the patients in the study already had mild cognitive impairment; it is not known if the effect can also be observed in people with total function.
A previous study, in 2006, found physical benefits to flavanols, mostly in the cardiovascular system. In that study, the effects were seen to be significantly greater in elderly subject than younger ones. The researchers in the 2006 study surmised that the difference was a result of the younger subjects being healthier to begin with.
The results were greatest with dark chocolate, with is richest in flavanols and similar compounds. However, all chocolate has them to some degree.
A compound called epicatechin, also found in chocolate as well as in tea and red wine, is another one that helps improve efficiency by maintaining the elasticity of blood vessels. Epicatechin also protects against sunburn.