A nice cup of the right kind of cocoa could hold the promise of promoting brain function as people age.
In an increasingly aging world, medical researchers are seeing more cases of dementia and are looking for ways to make brains work better. One potential source of help may be flavanols, as antioxidant found in cocoa beans that can increase blood flow to the brain, researchers said Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Ian MacDonald of England's University of Nottingham reported on tests given to young women who were asked to do a complex task while their brains were being studied with magnetic resonance imaging. Among the women given drinks of cocoa, high in falvanols, there was a significant increase in blood flow to the brain compared with subjects who did not drink the cocoa, he said.
This reaises the prospect of using flavanols in the treatment of dementia, marked by decreased blood flow in the brain, and in maintaining overall cardiovascular health, he said. The next step, MacDonald said, is to move from healthy subjects to people who have "compromised" blood flow to the brain.
Norman Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School said he found similar health benefits in the Cuna Indian tribe in Panama. They drink cocoa exclusively. But the cocoa typically sold in markets is low in flavanols, which are usually removed because they impart a bitter taste, Hollenberg said. He also said the findings do not mean people should indulge in chocolate.
"Chocolate is a delight. It can never be a health food because we have a calorie problem." Hollenbert said. But, he added, in cocoa a lot of fat is removed from the chocolate. Hollenberg, as expert in blood pressure, studied the Cuna because those who live on native islands do not have high blood pressure.
He said he found that, when tribe members move to cities, their blood pressure rises. A major difference is the consumption of their own prepared cocoa, which is high in falvanols. In native areas, that is all they dink; in cities, they adopt the local diet.