- Flavanol consumption may boost cognitive abilities in some older adults, according to research findings shared by a multinational team.
- Previous research has suggested a link between flavanol consumption and cognitive aging that may depend on diet quality.
- Some researchers caution against drawing unintended conclusions from the study.
Dietary flavonoids are naturally occurring chemicals found in a variety of foods including grapes, cocoa, and tea.
The study was conducted by researchers at a variety of institutions including Columbia University, Harvard University, New York University, and the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.
The study was partially funded by the Mars Inc. food company and studied flavanol supplements rather than flavanol foods.
For the study, more than 3,500 participants were divided up into two roughly equal groups.
One received a flavanol dietary supplement while the other received a placebo.
Researchers used tools including Alternative Health Eating Index (aHEI) scores and the Modified Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (ModRey) test to identify baseline health and memory scores.
Participants were followed over a 3-year period.
The biggest improvements were found among those with the lowest aHEI scores (below 38) which, according to the researchers, “reflects a diet quality ranging from the U.S. average to slightly below average.”
They found that those who had a poor diet, but who received a flavanol pill had a sustained increase in baseline memory levels as compared to those who received a placebo pill.
The pill contained about 500 milligrams of cocoa-based flavanols, a naturally occurring compound.
Adam Brickman, PhD, one of the authors of the study, told Healthline it’s important to keep in mind that while a lot of research into memory in older adults tends to focus on conditions like Alzheimer’s, research like his and his team’s is more keyed in on what is called “cognitive aging.”
“I think that, based on the experiments that we’ve done over the past 15 years or so, we’re tapping into a memory system that we think changes with normal aging,” Brickman said.
“In a segment of normal, relatively healthy, older adults, there’s been depletion of flavanol levels.”
Those whose test results included medium and high aHEI scores did not see the same improvements with the pill.
Kelsey Costa, a registered dietitian nutritionist, told Healthline that research like this can have a significant impact in the field, as practitioners and clients come to understand more of how diet can impact cognitive performance.
“Just as certain nutrients are crucial for developing brains, certain nutrients are essential for maintaining cognitive function as we age,” Costa said.
“It’s critical to prioritize preventive nutrition that promotes healthy aging, and incorporating dietary flavanols is an integral part of this strategy.”
The researchers studied the effects of cocoa-based flavanol supplements, but nutrition experts say it may be possible to boost your intake of from foods containing the
- grapes and red wine
Maya Feller, a registered dietitian nutritionist, told Healthline that in order to increase your flavanol intake, it’s important to make sure you choose a method that is accessible to you.
“Flavanols are found in a wide variety of plants including fruits, vegetables, tea, cocoa, and fermented grapes,” she said.
“I generally recommend that people start with plants that are affordable, accessible, culturally relevant, and tasty as an entry point to incorporating them into their pattern of eating. Canned, fresh, frozen, boxed, and jarred are all options for adding more plants to a person’s pattern of eating.”
It’s important to note that some in the field are less sure that the study shows significant benefits tied to increased flavanol levels outside of those with less-than-ideal diets.
Naveed Sattar, PhD, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, said in a statement shared by the Science Media Centre, that studies like this can give the “illusion of benefit” and that it’s much better for the general person to not immediately go and seek out a drastic increase in their flavanol intake.
“People should not rush to such drinks or diets but rather keep doing the things that we 100% know protect against many illnesses — eat better (and fewer calories if overweight), walk a little more and sleep well and have traditional risk factors tested and, if needed, improved,” Dr. Sattar continued.
Aedin Cassidy, PhD, professor at the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, also not involved in the study, shared in the same media release that the dosage suggested by the researchers is one that most people should be able to meet if they feel they need to make dietary changes.
“The dose required for these improvements in brain health are readily achievable — for example, 1 mug of tea, 6 squares of dark chocolate, a couple of serving of berries [or] apples would together provide about 500 mg of flavanols…”