But don't go feasting on candy bars just yet.
Researchers have found that a compound naturally found in cocoa, tea and a variety of vegetables can undo memory loss associated with aging. But don’t go raiding that Halloween candy bowl for chocolate just yet; there’s a catch to read below.
This groundbreaking research, which was published Sunday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, says that bioactive ingredients called flavanols discernibly countered age-related memory decline in a group of study volunteers.
The 37 test subjects, ages 50-69, were given a specially prepared cocoa mixture they consumed over three months. The drinks either contained a high dose of flavanols, 900 milligrams, or a negligible dose, only 10 milligrams.
Scientists then performed tests, which included brain imaging and measuring blood volume in a key part of the brain for memory formation called the dentate gyrus. They also ran memory tests on the test subjects before and after they were given the cocoa mixture.
The group given the high amounts of flavanols in their drink mixture saw great improvements in memory and increased blood flow to the dentate gyrus.
“If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30- or 40-year-old,” said neurology professor Scott Small of New York’s Columbia University Medical Center.
The study offers the first evidence that strongly supports the theory that human memory deteriorates with age because of changes in the dentate gyrus, a region of the hippocampus. Until now the evidence in humans showed only a correlational link between memory and changes in this area of the brain, not a causal one.
Its findings strongly indicate that flavanols increase connectivity and blood flow to the dentate gyrus. However, researchers also warn that flavanols exists only in minuscule amounts in commercial chocolate candies, compared with the amount they used in the study, as current commercial cocoa-processing methods remove much of the flavanols. In other words, feasting on a bag of Hershey bars is not going to make you any smarter.
“It would make a lot of people happy, but it would also make them unhealthy,” warns Small, who is also director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia.
Small and his research team said large-scale research is needed in this area, and noted that their study’s sample size was small.
The study was subsidized by Mars, the Virginia-based pet food and confectionery manufacturer which produces chocolate bars and candies such as Milky Way, M&M’s, Twix, Snickers, and of course, the Mars bar. Mars produced the drink mixture used in the study.
Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on Facebook.