If anything can make your brain cells freeze up it may well be the run up t Christmas with lists galore and too many things to organise and remember. As we get older we certainly do get more forgetful, too much information already in there can mean it takes longer to retrieve it. Menopausal brain freeze/fog happens to most women at some point but the antioxidant flavanols naturally found in cocoa may be able to reverse some age-related memory loss.
Why do we get forgetful?
Previous research by scientists has shown that age-related memory loss is associated with changes that take place in the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain located within the hippocampus. Notably, early-stage Alzheimer’s disease is believed to affect a different region of the hippocampus, known as the entorhinal cortex. This suggests, the author of the study reasoned, that different mechanisms underlie “normal” memory loss and the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Scott A. Small, MD, is the senior author of the new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience and it was conducted by researchers from Columbia University, New York University and Mars, Inc. The latter I suspect may be involved because of their large share of the world’s chocolate market, but as they invented the plain chocolate Mars bar I am willing to give them some leeway.
However, not all researchers agree that there is any such thing as normal memory loss, but then researchers in my experience very rarely agree on anything.
How cocoa may improve memory and brain activity
Previous studies had shown that cocoa flavanols could improve neural connections when tested on mice, so the researchers wanted to see whether those flavanols could influence memory in human beings. The new study focused on the type of cognitive decline typically associated with normal aging and is characterized by a decline in learning ability and decreased ability to remember specific things such as new names or where objects such as keys or cars have been left. Studies have shown that such cognitive decline can begin in early adulthood but usually does not affect quality of life until the 50s at the earliest.
Because chocolate manufactures usually strip most of the flavanols from the cocoa used, the researchers used a special cocoa-flavanol-rich drink manufactured by Mars, Inc., for research purposes. This is a small-scale study of just 37 healthy volunteers aged between 50 and 69 who were randomly assigned to a diet either low (10mg) or high (900mg) in flavanols each day.
The participants took part in memory tests at the start and end of the study and also had their brains imaged with a test that measures blood flow to the dentate gyrus. The memory test, which measured pattern recognition, was designed to evaluate a form of memory believed to be controlled by the dentate gyrus.
Good news for the high dose cocoa participants who showed significant increases in dentate gyrus activity and improved performance on the memory test, compared with those who drank the lower dose of flavanols
“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,” Dr. Small said.
Now that is definitely worth adding cocoa to your daily drinks menu. I have always been in favour of chocolate as a health food and while more research is continuing at the scientific level, I am happy to do my bit to aid anecdotal evidence in favour of cocoa. Remember the higher the cocoa content the better, so the healthiest way is to find an organic source of pure cocoa or cocoa flakes (not drinking chocolate) and sweeten with honey or agave syrup rather than sugar.
However, if cocoa doesn’t do it for you then there are also high levels of flavanols in green tea. The health benefits of that are well documented, and numerous studies have shown that, in addition to being antioxidants, flavanols may have a wide variety of health benefits. A large clinical trial will soon examine whether flavanols can prevent heart attack and stroke.
There are course several factors involved in this kind of ‘brain freeze’. If you are concerned about increased forgetfulness then do check that your hormones are in balance. Bioidentical progesterone does help memory and focus and high levels of oestrogen dominance and/pr stress will also have an impact.