According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the places where the most Nobel Prize recipients live have the highest chocolate consumption. Yes- it could be a weird coincidence, but it begs the question: Is it possible that intelligence or other measures of high brain function are actually improved by the consumption of chocolate? A new study looks at the evidence and concludes with a resounding “maybe!”
When it comes to preserving and improving brain function, we need all the help we can get. Aging causes diseases such as dementia, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Experts predict dementia will become much more common in the near future. Yet despite decades of research, there are no highly effective treatments for dementia.
So, what’s the scoop on chocolate and the brain?
A new review analyzed the evidence to date that flavanols (found in dark chocolate and cocoa) may benefit human brain function. Flavanols are a form of flavonoids, plant-based substances that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Dark chocolate and cocoa are not the only foods that contain flavanols. Many fruits and vegetables are rich in flavanols, including apples, red grapes, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, beans, kale, and onions.
Here’s what they found:
Short-term consumption may be helpful. A study of young adults found that two hours after consuming dark chocolate (with high flavanol content), memory and reaction time were better than among those consuming white chocolate (with low flavanol content). However, other similar studies showed no benefit.
Long-term consumption may be helpful. One study found that among adults ages 50 to 69, those taking a cocoa supplement with high flavanol content for three months had better performance on tests of memory than those assigned to take a low-flavanol cocoa supplement.
Some studies demonstrated evidence of improved brain blood flow, oxygen levels, or nerve function as measured by imaging tests or tests of electrical activity in the brain after the consumption of cocoa drinks. The down-side was the changes did not improve performance on cognitive tasks, so it hasn’t connected the improved results directly to better brain function.
While these findings are encouraging and intriguing, more research is needed, especially since most studies so far have been small and many were unable to eliminate the possibility of a placebo effect. Many people are more than willing to accept any suggestion that chocolate is healthy (if only to justify their high consumption of chocolate). But, it’ll take more than the evidence we have now to prove that chocolate or flavanols can truly preserve or improve brain function. And don’t forget, not all chocolate is the same. Dark chocolate and cocoa have high flavanol levels, while milk chocolate and white chocolate have much lower levels. Also, many types of chocolate are high in sugar, fats, and calories.
So, even if dark chocolate turns out to be good for the brain, it’s unlikely that doctors will recommend a Godiva bar a day……bummer! One can still hope.