Catherine Kwik-Uribe, Ph.D. No matter how active and healthy people are, cognitive function is known to be impacted with age. While many approach memory loss with a sense of humor as having a “senior moment,” there’s no denying that a fear of forgetting is top of mind.
Care facilities that serve an aging population should take a holistic approach to designing active programming and nutrition regimens by integrating the latest scientific information to help their residents maintain and improve their memory.
Of course, ensuring residents are able to exercise can have many benefits throughout the body. Recent research indicates its role in improving memory. For example, a study conducted by researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that, among those with mild cognitive decline, a year-long exercise routine was found to “boost blood flow into two key regions of the brain associated with memory.” In fact, the study also found a regular aerobic exercise routine was able to improve memory function among these individuals, supporting the importance of exercise in promoting cognitive function.
Further, there is emerging evidence on the brain health benefits of flavanols – bioactive components found in tea, grapes, apples and even cocoa. Specific to cocoa, there is high-quality scientific evidence demonstrating that the daily intake of cocoa flavanols, the unique flavanol mixture found naturally in the cocoa bean, can offer cognitive benefits to older adults.
Cocoa on the brain
Cocoa flavanols have been studied for decades, with multiple published clinical studies that have described the effect of cocoa flavanols throughout the body – including its ability to support cardiovascular health and blood pressure, as well as improving brain health.
This research has shown that one way in which cocoa flavanols work is by boosting the body’s natural supply of nitric oxide, allowing arteries to relax and widen, promoting healthy blood flow to supply oxygen and nutrients to vital organs, muscles and tissues to support optimal performance. Specifically for brain health, several studies conducted during the past decade tested the effects of cocoa flavanols on various aspects of memory and have shown that cocoa flavanols can improve memory in as little as eight weeks with the right flavanol levels.
These data include a double-blind study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , conducted in 90 elderly individuals. The study evaluated the effects of cocoa flavanols on cognitive function, which was assessed at baseline and after eight weeks by standard tests, such as the Verbal Fluency Test.
Results showed that after eight weeks, the participants who consumed the highest cocoa flavanols level used in the study were able to improve word recall by 31%, remembering eight more words per minute than they had at baseline. Additionally, participants who consumed this level of flavanols were 21% faster at completing the Trail Making Test, averaging 17 seconds faster than baseline.
More is better
Another study conducted by Columbia University researchers evaluated healthy people between the ages of 50 and 69 who took either a high level of cocoa flavanols ( about 780mg) for 3 months or a low level (30mg), which acted as the control group. Results, published in Nature Neuroscience , indicate that taking this level of cocoa flavanols every day was shown to boost brain performance and spatial memory.
Memory tasks were completed 24% faster than by those who took the control amount. Additionally, participants who consumed about 780mg of cocoa flavanols had 62% more blood flowing to the dentate gyrus, known to be associated with age-related memory loss, than they did before the study began.
Building on the growing evidence on the cognitive benefits of cocoa flavanols, a new study recently published in Nature Scientific Reports found that a better diet and a higher habitual intake of flavanols was linked to improved memory. Excitingly, in this same study, the intake of cocoa flavanols over 12 weeks at the higher level was shown to significantly improve episodic memory, a form of long-term memory that features memories formed in your past that are important to who you are. Additional data supporting cocoa flavanols’ positive effects on cognitive function were also published in Hypertension and Nutrition and Healthy Aging .
As residents seek everyday interventions that can enhance their memory, administrators should continue to focus on regular activity and exercise, and a balanced and varied diet. As part of this diet, it is important to remember the other phytonutrients found in foods like flavanols. There is an increasing body of evidence to support that the inclusion of these bioactive components as part of a regular diet can offer a range of health benefits, including supporting cognitive health as we age.
Catherine Kwik-Uribe, Ph.D., is Global R&D-Scientific & Regulatory Affairs Director, Mars Symbioscience, a business within the Mars Edge segment of Mars, Incorporated, and maker of CocoaVia Memory+ . She received her doctorate degree in human nutrition from the University of California, Davis, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the Department of Toxicology.