"NIA human brain drawing" by National Institute for Aging, a branch of NIH. As a work created by a US government employee, this is in the public domain - http://www.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/nia-ad-image02_large.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NIA_human_brain_drawing.jpg#mediaviewer/File:NIA_human_brain_drawing.jpg

“NIA human brain drawing” by National Institute for Aging, a branch of NIH, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Memory Loss and Ageing

Who'd have thought that your evening cup of hot chocolate could boost some memory skills! Click To Tweet As we get older, remembering names of new friends, where you put those elusive car keys and my person favourite – where I parked my car in the mall parking lot (isn’t that why I bring my kids with me???) become problematic at times. ¬†According to the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), age-related memory decline begins in early adulthood but doesn’t become really noticeable or problematic until the ripe old age of 50 or 60 – somewhere I am about now ūüė• And I must say, I do notice it. ¬†I now have to really focus on where I leave my car in the mall parking lot. ¬†If I don’t, I’m trying desperately to maintain dignity while I try not to appear to be looking for my lost car. ¬†So, why might hot chocolate be the panacea for your failing memory? ¬†Flavanols are the key but first lets look at the reason behind those troublesome lapses of memory.

Dentate gyrus and Pattern Separation

Why do we tend to suffer this age-related memory decline? ¬†The dentate gyrus is part of the hippocampus complex of the brain. ¬†It is a pattern separator. ¬†Two similar memories which could be easily confused such as where you parked the car at the mall today compared with where you parked the car at the mall two days ago can be distinguished by the processes of the dentate gyrus. ¬†As we age, this structure tends to suffer from similar breakdowns felt in other parts of the body and ¬†our keys get misplaced so¬†we have to take our children shopping to¬†relocate our car in a parking lot ūüėČ .

Cocoa Flavanols Boost Memory

But as with many structures and bodily functions that degrade as we age there is hope in some of the simpler pleasures of life.  The cocoa bean, which is the secret to delicious hot chocolate, is a high source of flavanols.  The CUMC study included 37 healthy individuals in the 50 to 69 age-range bracket.   They were randomly given either a diet high in flavanol (900 mg per day) or a low-flavanol diet (10 mg per day) for three months.  They were subjected to brain imaging which measured blood volume in the dentate gyrus,  and memory tests both before and after the study.  The memory tests involved 20 pattern-recognition tests designed to measure the functioning of the dentate gyrus.  Those taking the high flavanol diet showed significant improvement in the functioning of the dentate gyrus.  Lost keys should now be a thing of the past for these folks! 

Flavanols are antioxidants.  Antioxidants help to neutralize the effects of free radicals in the cells which tend to damage chemical pathways.  Flavanols are found in many plants including tea and red wine but are particularly abundant in the cocoa bean.  Flavanols not only improve memory but seem to reduce blood clots and cut the amount of bad cholesterol in the bloodstream.

It’s not just any hot chocolate that has an abundance of these flavanols. ¬†Processing of the cocoa beans can remove most of this important antioxidant. ¬†The best antioxidant levels are found from highest to lowest levels in:

  1. unprocessed cocoa powder
  2. unsweetened baking chocolate
  3. dark chocolate
  4. semi-sweet chocolate

Raw cocoa powder can be purchased on line or at most health food stores.  Add hot water, honey or agave syrup for a delicious cup of hot chocolate.  Add the powder to your daily smoothie for an added health boost.  I like adding cocoa or dark chocolate flakes to my morning or afternoon latte. Adding a cinnamon stick or powder is a delicious addition but also another healthful option (a post for another time).  Mmmmmm

Hot Chocolate is Good

Flavanols appear to be concentrated in the solid part of the bean which is the origin of cocoa powder. ¬†Cocoa butter, also a part of the bean comprises 50 to 60% of the weight of the bean. ¬†The butter itself is not high in flavanols although it does give chocolate its characteristic gooeyness and most of its calories. ¬†Now, don’t go pigging out on chocolate to boost your memory. ¬†There is a “Goldilocks Zone” about how much of a good thing will actually give improvement. ¬†

‚ÄúIt has been shown as proof positive that carefully prepared chocolate is as healthful a food as it is pleasant; that it is nourishing and easily digested ‚Ķ that it is above all helpful to people who must do a great deal of mental work.‚Ä̬†‚ÄĒAnthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826),French Magistrate and gastronome

Considering 1 ounce of dark chocolate ¬†has 170 calories, 12 grams of fat and 7 grams of sugar, too much will really add to the waistline. ¬†One or two ounces a day are good for some health benefits of improved cardiovascular health as well as improved memory. ¬†After that, well you know, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing! ¬†Of course, you can always rely on supplements. ¬†Calories are avoided and your memory might gain an extra boost‚ÄĒ but what fun is that!!!

Sources

Busch, Sandi. ¬†“What is a Flavonoid in Chocolate?”¬† SFGate. ¬†October 27 2014.

Columbia University Medical Center. “Dietary cocoa flavanols reverse age-related memory decline in mice.” October 26, 2014. ¬†ScienceDaily. October 27, 2014.

Dr. Mercola. ¬†“Dark Chocolates May Help Slash Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease by 37%”. ¬†September 21, 2011. ¬†Mercola.com. ¬†October 27, 2014.

Kunal, Dutta. ¬†“Cup of cocoa could give the elderly the memory of a ‘typical 30 or 40-year-old.” ¬†October 27, 2014. ¬†The Independent. ¬†October 27, 2914.

Tatum, Malcolm. ¬†“What is Flavanol?” ¬†October 22, 2014. ¬†Wise Geek. ¬†October 27, 2014

 

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