L’AQUILA, Italy — Studies don’t get any more delicious than this: Eating chocolate improves memory and other cognitive functions, and can even help prevent mental decline in seniors if consumed regularly, according to research by Italian scientists.
Researchers Valentina Socci and Michele Ferrara, of the University of L’Aquila, reviewed prior studies to see how cocoa flavonols — chemical compounds found within cocoa beans — affect cognition. Flavonols are known to be beneficial to the brain and have shown useful in treating patients showing signs of dementia or cognitive decline.
When it came to flavonoid-rich cocoa, they determined consumption enhances memory performance, attention, and also improves how quickly visual information is processed.
“Regular intake of cocoa and chocolate could indeed provide beneficial effects on cognitive functioning over time,” the authors explain in a press release.
Enjoying chocolate is particularly beneficial to women, especially those who work night shifts or suffer from sleeping disorders, the researchers noted. That’s because the flavanols can counteract the damage caused by sleep deprivation. When chocolate or cocoa was consumed by women after a night of poor sleep, researchers found that participants didn’t struggle to complete work or suffer from other forms of cognitive impairment as much as those who didn’t.
As for helping the elderly, the authors discovered that consuming cocoa on a daily basis improved attention, memory, processing speed, and verbal fluency. The benefits for older participants were greatest in those showing signs of memory impairments and mild mental decline.
“This result suggests the potential of cocoa flavanols to protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance,” the authors explain. “If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.”
Of course, while eating chocolate regularly might help your brain, the researchers warn of side effects linked to the high number of calories in the treat. Cocoa also contains caffeine and sugar levels may be particularly high if milk or other sugars are added to products.
Further research is needed, the authors say, to determine the proper doses for different demographics and to treat specific conditions. That said, they do admit the review has led them to enjoy a small amount of chocolate regularly.
“Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavanols,” they boast. “So we always eat some dark chocolate. Every day.”
The review was published recently in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.