By Karen Weintraub, Special for USA TODAY
it may not justify your chocolate habit, early research suggests that
cocoa may help improve blood flow to the brain in people with the
earliest signs of vascular dementia.
In a small study out this
week, people with high blood pressure, diabetes and some memory
challenges performed better on cognitive tests after drinking hot cocoa
for a month.
Drinking the cocoa also appeared to increase blood
flow to their brains, according to ultrasounds. Vascular dementia, which
can include confusion, trouble speaking and vision loss in addition to
memory loss, is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain that deprives
brain cells of oxygen and nutrients.
The study, published in the journal Neurology,
was designed not to see whether doctors should be prescribing cocoa,
but rather to test a potential new method for detecting vascular
dementia early, before symptoms appear. And early signs are that it was a
"This is the first measure that could potentially
identify individuals at risk before they develop the disease," said
Farzaneh A. Sorond, a vascular neurologist at Brigham and Women's
Hospital in Boston, who co-wrote the paper. "If we could find a way to
identify them before they have damaged their neurons and blood vessels,
potentially we could prevent this disease."
Two researchers who
wrote an editorial commenting on the study agreed. The study, they
wrote, "demonstrates the practical utility of a simple, inexpensive, and
noninvasive technique" for measuring how much blood flow increases when
the brain is active.
The study followed 80 people older than 60
with risk factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Both groups
were told to drink two cups of hot cocoa a day.
Tests at the
beginning of the trial revealed that about one-third of participants had
early signs of memory problems. Those participants - but not the
higher-functioning ones - showed improvements in brain blood flow and
performance on cognitive tests after a month of cocoa.
was small and preliminary, so it should not encourage people to drink
cocoa thinking it will save them from dementia, warned Heather Snyder,
director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer's
"I don't think we can draw any conclusions from this study about whether drinking cocoa is a potential therapy," she said.
Sorond said it could be harmful if someone added cocoa to their diet without cutting calories elsewhere.
cup of cocoa used in the study contained 100 calories, so researchers
were careful to ensure that participants cut 200 calories a day from
their normal diet.
"I would be concerned if someone who already
had a lot of vascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure went out
there and started taking in extra calories and fat and sugar," Sorond
said. "That would probably be harmful to them."
Sorond said she personally will continue eating chocolate "in moderation, and not change my consumption as a result of this."