January 28, 2023
With Alzheimer’s and other dementias on the rise, and with disappointing results from the currently available dementia drugs, researchers are looking at natural compounds that may prevent or slow the onset of cognitive decline. Substances that are safe, as well as affordable, would fill an urgent need as the population ages and cognitive decline becomes more common.
One of the most promising, and delicious, natural substances to go under the research magnifying glass is cocoa. Unprocessed cocoa contains flavonols, a type of phytonutrient (plant chemical) found in many fruits and vegetables. Flavonols are the compounds responsible for the vibrant colors found in many of these plant foods, such as the carotenoids that give carrots their bright orange color and anthocyanins, responsible for the rich purples in some varieties of cabbage, as well as blackberries and other foods.
Flavonoids have powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and even antimicrobial effects, so researchers naturally are examining many of these compounds to see how they might help to reverse or slow cognitive decline. Cocoa powder has a high concentration of flavonols and past research showed promise that these cocoa compounds might be of benefit in cognitive decline. But much of this research was based on studies that were observational only, and were not properly conducted clinical trials, the “gold standard” of the research world.
Because of the lack of a clinical trial on cocoa flavonoids and cognition, researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina saw an opportunity to fill in this gap with a study. With funding from the National Institutes for Health (NIH), they recruited 2,200 study participants with an average age of 73, who enrolled in the study between August 2016 and August 2017.
The study, which lasted three years, was set up like this: participants were divided into three groups. Group one received a daily cocoa extract supplement, Group Two got a daily cocoa extract supplement plus a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement, Group Three received only a daily placebo that was inactive (the so-called “sugar pill”) so they could compare those who got nothing to the treatment groups. All participants underwent a variety of cognitive tests conducted over the phone, once at the very beginning of the study and then a year later. These tests measured, among other factors, memory, attention, planning and organization.
There was no difference in measures of cognition between those who took the cacao extract and those who did not take it. But here is what surprised the researchers the most: those participants who took the daily multivitamin actually had an improvement in their scores, especially if they had a history of cardiovascular disease. The results of the study were published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia on September 14, 2022.
The research team cautions that it’s too early to recommend taking a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement to protect your cognitive health, as more studies are needed. But nearly all physicians consider a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement to be safe for most patients, so there should be little harm, if any, in taking one. Of course, if you are under the care of a physician for any illness, especially if you take any prescription medications, you should consult with your physician before adding anything new to your daily routine, even if it’s just a multivitamin.
Plus, this study does not invalidate the effectiveness of the flavonols found in cocoa or fruits and vegetables on your health. The flavonols in cocoa were studied for their effects on cognition and not on any other parameters such as blood pressure and the like, so you can continue to enjoy that cup of hot cocoa occasionally or that piece of dark chocolate.
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