Can drinking hot chocolate keep your brain young?

Spiced hot chocolate (Karoline Boehm Goodnick)

I think researchers are getting a little desperate to find something, anything, that will work to halt memory loss and other signs of age-related cognitive decline. That could be why they’ve been conducting studies using hot cocoa—with some surprisingly good results.

In a small study published in Wednesday in the journal Neurology, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that 18 seniors with vascular problems due to Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure had improved blood flow to the brain after drinking two cups of hot cocoa every day for 30 days. The researchers also found that the participants improved on a test of working memory.

The brain relies on an infusion of glucose- and oxygen-rich blood to perform challenging cognitive tasks.

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In 42 other seniors who participated in the study and who didn’t have impaired blood flow, the researchers didn’t see any increase in blood flow or improved performance on memory tests from drinking the hot chocolate.

An Italian study last year found an improvement in memory test scores among 90 elderly patients with mild cognitive decline who drank hot cocoa that was rich in flavanols, plant chemicals thought to improve blood vessel function.

This recent study, however, didn’t find that the amount of flavanols made a difference: those who consumed cocoa low in flavanols had the same benefits as those who had cocoa rich in the substance. “This could mean that it doesn’t take a whole lot of flavanols to get an effect,” said study author Dr. Farzaneh A. Sorond, a vascular neurologist at the Brigham, “or there’s something besides flavanols in the hot cocoa that are having an effect on blood vessel function.”

Larger studies are needed, she added, before people should consider consuming cocoa to maintain their brain power as they age.

Doing such research may be easier as a result of this new study. Sorond and her colleagues employed an inexpensive ultrasound imaging device to measure blood flow in the brain rather than the more pricey magnetic resonance imaging scans used in previous research.

Stay tuned for further research addressing the benefits of hot chocolate. If you do decide to drink a cup or two a day, go for the low-calorie, sugar-free products.

“The last thing those with Type 2 diabetes should do is add sugar, fat, and calories to their diets, which could cause additional harm,” Sorond said.