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If you’re looking for an easy and literally sweet way to keep your brain healthy and sharp with aging, keep drinking cocoa. Scientists reported this week in the journal Neurology that the popular beverage boosts brain performance, though the mechanism is not entirely clear yet.
This time researchers gave elderly study participants two cups of cocoa a day to see if the chocolate drink could help cognitive performance. Past studies have focused on the health benefits of dark chocolate.
Harvard scientists also studied cocoa's benefit for the brain in 2008, finding the drink improved blood vessel health to the brain. In the Harvard study, there was an 8 percent increase in blood flow after one week of consuming the beverage.
Another study, published by Dutch researchers in 2006, found chocolate in all forms, including cocoa, lowers blood pressure. The authors for the Dutch study concluded 2.11 grams of chocolate that was the average daily intake of the participants "clearly" improved endothelial (the lining of the blood vessels) function.
Believing that it’s the flavanols in chocolate that have health benefits, for comparison the researchers gave one group of 80 people enrolled in the study flavanol poor chocolate and the other a brew that was rich in antioxidants.
Before and after the 30-day study period the participants’ memory and reasoning were tested. using a series of patterns and letters on a computer screen.
The researchers also performed ultrasound tests that measure blood flow to the brain in addition to MRI scans that show how the neurons in the brain are functioning.
Those who did poorly on the test showed impairment of blood flow and damage to the white matter of the brain.
After 30 days of drinking cocoa, those who did poorly on memory tests had an 8 percent boost in blood flow and their reaction time to recognizing the computer objects was a minute faster.
Cocoa has something else that boosts brain power besides flavanols, however. The researchers discovered even the group given the antioxidant poor cocoa also performed better and had improved blood flow to the brain.
Cocoa consumption had no effect on the group of elders with no signs of cognitive impairment with initial testing.
Dr. Farzaneh A. Sorond, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who led the study said the researchers plan to investigate what exactly what in chocolate helps keep the brain sharp and improves blood flow.
Another benefit from the study is that researchers now see blood flow to the brain is directly linked to cognition, which is why high blood pressure is associated with higher risk of dementia.