As we get older, maintaining our cognitive health becomes an increasing concern for many people — especially people with diabetes. Diabetes has long been associated with an increased risk of dementia as you age, and studies have found that higher blood glucose levels predict greater cognitive decline in the future.
But cognitive health is based on many different factors, including but not limited to diabetes status and blood glucose control. There are steps you can take outside the traditional areas of diabetes management that may help ward off cognitive decline, including consuming foods that have been shown to have cognitive benefits. A new study highlights why cocoa and chocolate are considered by many to be “superfoods” for cognitive health.
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Cocoa: packed with flavanols
While cocoa contains many potentially beneficial components, a group of chemicals called flavanols has been the subject of several studies on the health benefits of cocoa — including one published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.
The study included 18 healthy male participants, recruited at the University of Birmingham in England. None were smokers or had a history of cardiovascular health problems. For 24 hours before the start of the study, participants were asked to refrain from consuming a variety of foods and beverages rich in polyphenols — not just cocoa and chocolate, but also a number of fruits and fruit juices, coffee, tea and wine. They also avoided nitrate-rich vegetables such as beets and cabbage, and didn’t exercise vigorously or drink alcohol during this period.
Participants were then randomly assigned to drink either a high-flavanol or a low-flavanol cocoa beverage in a study setting. At the time, neither they nor the study administrators knew which beverage participants received. This process was repeated two weeks later. At each visit, participants underwent a variety of tests and measurements both right before consuming the beverage and two hours after consuming it.
When the researchers looked at who had who had received a high- or low-flavanol beverage and their test results, they found that drinking the high-flavanol beverage led to much higher blood oxygenation two hours later. In fact, while blood oxygen levels between the two groups were pretty much the same right before drinking the beverages, two hours later it was about three times as high in the high-flavanol group.
Study participants were also asked to complete behavioral tasks to measure reaction time and accuracy, and in this area, too, the results favored the high-flavanol beverage. While both the high- and low-flavanol groups performed similarly for simple to moderate cognitive tasks, members of the low-flavanol group took significantly longer to complete difficult cognitive tasks two hours after drinking the beverage.
Can cocoa help you think?
As the study’s researchers write, these results represent the first time a study has found that flavanols from cocoa lead to more efficient oxygenation in the frontal areas of the brain in young, healthy people. While it’s reasonable to assume that these benefits could apply to other groups of people, further studies are needed to confirm that they apply to older people, people with diabetes, and women.
The researchers also note that in past studies, flavanols from cocoa have been found to improve blood vessel function in peripheral areas of the body, such as the legs — a potentially important benefit in people with diabetes, since so many people with diabetes eventually develop peripheral vascular disease. These benefits were confirmed in tests used in the current study
So even if they don’t directly improve your brain function, it appears that flavanols from cocoa can have other significant benefits that apply to people with diabetes. The researchers emphasize that future dietary recommendations, especially for people with conditions like diabetes, should consider the benefits associated with plant-derived flavanols when it comes to blood oxygenation and cognitive performance.
Want to learn more about maintaining cognitive health with diabetes? Read “Nine Tips to Keep Your Memory With Diabetes,” “Keeping Your Brain Strong With Diabetes” and “Memory Fitness: How to Get It, How to Keep It.”