Reported by Tiffany Chao, M.D., ABC News Medical Unit:
We all know that chocolate is comforting to the soul, but it may also be just as good for your body and mind.
A new study suggests that consuming more flavanol, a component of cocoa, improves cognitive function and blood pressure in elderly patients who have mild cognitive impairment.
In the study, elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment consumed drinks that were either low, intermediate or high in cocoa flavanol. Cognitive function - including executive function, short-term and long-term memory, processing speed and overall thinking skills - was tested after eight weeks. Scores improved in patients who drank intermediate and high levels of flavanol.
"This is the first dietary intervention study demonstrating that the regular consumption of cocoa flavanols might be effective in improving cognitive function in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment," wrote study author Giovambattista Desideri, associate professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of L'Aquila in Italy.
The research was supported by a grant from chocolate giant Mars, Inc., and the company supplied the cocoa drinks used in the study. Still, the results add to a growing body of evidence that consuming moderate amounts of chocolate may be good for you - and some health experts said the results appear encouraging.
"There is a large and growing body of evidence linking foods concentrated in bioflavanoids - and cocoa specifically - with beneficial health effects," says Dr. David Katz, director of medical public health studies at Yale University.
For example, a recent study found that dark chocolate reduces the risk of heart problems. Flavanols, which can also be found in tea and in dark fruits such as red grapes, cherries and apples, are also known to help with kidney function, weight problems, anemia, gout, diabetes and stroke.
Others, however, cautioned that the study falls short of a ringing endorsement for everyone who fears dementia to start loading up on chocolate. First of all, the study had no control group. In other words, people who consumed a large amount of the cocoa flavanols were compared to those who consumed less, not people who had consumed none at all.
Second, the eight-week trial was short. Since flavonols are known to improve heart function in the short term, it is possible that the improvements in cognitive function were just a result of improved blood flow to the brain.
The improved cognition "might … be due to favorable effects on blood pressure and blood flow," Katz said. "I have long recommended foods rich in bioflavanoids and have long pointed out that most cognitive impairment is, in fact, vascular disease."
Still, for chocolate-lovers, doctors agree that chocolate is a tasty and practical way to consume flavanol.
"Cocoa powder is probably the best way to get their flavanols, as it delivers the most flavanols with the least amount of calories," says Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Though cocoa should not be used alone as a treatment for cognitive impairment, it may be a promising complementary approach to management of early dementia.
"As far as treatment, it could be offered to patients and families in a disease in which there is little in the way of good therapy," says Dr. Roger A. Brumback, a professor of pathology, psychiatry and neurology at Creighton University Medical Center.