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Checkup: Does Dark Chocolate Improve Memory?

John Loo/

A new study shows a correlation between flavonol intake, a chemical found in chocolate, and memory improvement. Dr. Scott Small, a professor of neurology at Columbia University in New York, weighs in. 

Ditmire: If you’re into healthy eating, you might have heard of flavonols. 

Scott Small: It’s a category of chemicals that are found in many of our foods, including vegetables, plants, etc.

Ditmire: And chocolate.

Small: Flavonols come in different types. You can think of them, as an analogy, there are multiple types of vitamins. So the flavonols that are found in cocoa beans were the ones we ended up examining.

Ditmire: His research team studied flavonol intake and the brain and the area where we experience age-related memory loss.

Small: The normal wear and tear that occurs on the brain just like normal aging can affect other body systems. It’s meant to be distinct from a clear disease such as Alzheimer’s disease or vascular disease.

Ditmire: So they gave a group of 60-70 year old volunteers a super potent flavonol concoction

Small: The results showed that the subjects who consumed high-cocoa flavonols for three months had significant improvement in their memory and in function of the area called the dentate gyrus.  

Ditmire: But before you unwrap that Hershey’s bar or brew another cup of cocoa-

Small: There is a kind of general take-home message that diet can ameliorate age-related memory decline as a proof of principle. But in fact the mix we used had very high levels of flavonol that is very hard to just consume, to buy, or to eat.

Ditmire: Not even a little bit?

Small: Currently you cannot eat enough chocolate to meet these levels of cocoa flavonols. So I don’t want the message to be, “Eat a lot of chocolate.” As a physician that worries me a little bit.

Ditmire: So, what can we do to help our memory?

Small: Good old physical exercise is something that when it’s effective, it improves memory, and it improves function in the area we’ve been talking about.

Ditmire: But maybe that glass of chocolate milk after that brisk walk can’t hurt.

Dr. Scott Small is a professor of neurology at Columbia University in New York.