Flavanol-rich Foods Might Enhance Memory, Says Study

A multinational research effort links the ingestion of flavanols to cognitive enhancements in some older adults.

Flavanols and Cognitive Ability

The interconnection between flavanol consumption and cognitive aging, potentially dependent on dietary quality, has been a subject of earlier research. A variety of foodstuffs such as grapes and tea carry flavanols, naturally occurring chemicals.

A new study, as published on May 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asserts that eating flavanol-rich foods—like cocoa—can enhance memory in some senior adults. Over a span of three years, the researchers studied over 3,500 people.

Understanding the Study

This comprehensive study is the collaboration of researchers from Columbia University, Harvard University, New York University, and the University of Reading in the UK.

The participants, divided into two nearly equal groups, either received a flavanol dietary supplement or a placebo. The research team used tools such as the Alternative Health Eating Index (aHEI) scores and the Modified Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (ModRey) to gauge baseline health and memory scores. Over a three-year period, participants underwent regular monitoring.

Findings of the Study

Major improvements were noted among participants with the lowest aHEI scores (below 38), indicating diet quality ranging from the US average to slightly below average. The study revealed that those who had a poor diet, but received a flavanol pill, demonstrated a persistent increase in baseline memory levels compared to those who received a placebo pill. The pill contained around 500 milligrams of cocoa-based flavanols, a naturally occurring compound. Mars Inc. food company partially financed the study.

Shifting Focus: Cognitive Aging over Alzheimer’s Disease

Dr. Adam Brickman, a co-author of the study, emphasizes that his team’s research centers more on “cognitive aging” rather than Alzheimer’s. He suggests that the memory system undergoes changes with normal aging and that depletion of flavanol levels has been observed in a section of normal, healthy, older adults. Participants with medium and high aHEI scores did not see similar improvements with the pill.

Kelsey Costa observes that such research could have a significant impact on the field, as practitioners and clients gain a better understanding of how diet can influence cognitive performance.

Increasing Flavanol Intake

While the study designers chose cocoa-based flavanols, numerous other options exist, including tea, berries, and grapes. Maya Feller advises that one should adopt a method that is convenient for increasing flavanol levels. She recommends that people start with plants that are affordable, accessible, culturally relevant, and tasty for incorporating them into their dietary patterns.

Mixed Reactions to the Findings

Notably, some experts in the field remain uncertain about the significant benefits tied to increased flavanol levels outside of those with less-than-ideal diets. Dr. Naveed Sattar advises against rushing to diets or drinks high in flavanols and recommends sticking to proven protective measures against many illnesses.

Dr. Aedin Cassidy, who did not participate in the study, shared that the suggested dosage by the researchers should be readily achievable for most people, provided they feel the need for dietary changes.

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