When the press release hit email in-boxes, health editors across the country – including yours truly – were certainly dancing a jig. “Chocolate May Help Keep Brain Healthy,” said the release headline. “Drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day may help older people keep their brains healthy and their thinking skills sharp.” Obviously, fantastic news.
The study, published in the respected journal Neurology, comes from the hallowed halls of Harvard.
So it was with something close to glee that I called Farzaneh Sorond, M.D., Ph.D., and a neurologist with Harvard Medical School. Give us our prescription, Dr. Sorond. Tell us just how much chocolate and what kind we should eat or drink to keep our brains healthy. We’re ready to take our medicine.
But Sorond wanted to talk about something more exciting than chocolate. (As if there really were such a thing.)
First, the details of the study:
The lucky study participants – all 60 of whom had high blood pressure, diabetes or both – drank two cups of hot cocoa a day for 30 days and didn’t consume any other chocolate during the study. Before the study began, researchers tested participants’ memory and thinking skills and ran ultrasounds to measure the amount of blood flow to the brain during those tests. The researchers found that 18 of the 60 in the study had impaired blood flow to the brain.
By the end of the study, those with impaired blood flow had an 8 percent blood flow increase to the areas of the brain used during test-taking. They also had sped up their working memory, dropping their test time from 167 seconds to 116 seconds. The cocoa didn’t change the brain blood flow or improve test scores of those with regular blood flow.
Although half of the participants were given cocoa rich in the antioxidant flavanol that’s found in dark chocolate and the other half got flavonol-poor cocoa, the flavonol content seemed to make no difference in the results. This is interesting because some previous studies have found chocolate with high flavonol content seems to help brain health.
So when I reached Sorond on the phone, I began with questions about the chocolate content of the cocoas. But she brushed those aside. She was much more excited about what the study showed about blood flow.
“I’d like to emphasize that the importance of this study is that we were able to show that when your brain starts working, the blood flow to that area of brain is increased,” she said. Not only were the scientists able to see the blood flowing to the thinking areas of the brain, they could also see that the cocoa was improving that blood flow. Now we’re getting somewhere!
Several good studies have shown the beneficial effect of cocoa, she added. Excellent. And a previous Harvard study found chocolate may lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. So the recommendation must be to ..?
“I would be uncomfortable in recommending chocolate for brain health,” she said, to my great disappointment, adding that the extra calories and sugar might not be beneficial to an already “at-risk” population. Darn it.
But still there was hope for the chocolate prescription. We spoke with Paul Rosenberg, M.D., Associate Director of the Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, who called this research a “remarkable first step,” in his editorial accompanying the study. That sounded promising.
But like Sorond, Rosenberg is more encouraged that we’ve found a new, easier way of measuring blood flow to the brain and that we can see that introducing a substance to the blood stream – like hot cocoa – can improve that blood flow. He hopes researchers can use that new knowledge to further our search for prevention and treatment for both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
This all sounds wonderful, but what about recommending chocolate?! “I’m not ready to run out and tell everybody to use cocoa,” he told me.
Undaunted, we turned to Sam Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of Alzheimer’s Disease Research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and a leading scientist in brain health research.
“Chocolate contains many active compounds that may have benefit, but it also contains caffeine and theophylline that elevate blood pressure,” he wrote in an email.
His preference for brain health is not hot cocoa, but a good brisk walk. “Absolutely. No contest. Go for a walk. Don’t sit and pack in the chocolate!” he wrote.
Well, darn. Still, no one said I couldn’t have a nice little cup of cocoa. After my walk.
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