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Keep Your Brain Sharp: Eat Chocolate - Pacific Standard

Keep Your Brain Sharp: Eat Chocolate

New research provides more evidence linking cocoa consumption to enhanced cognitive functioning.
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(Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr)

(Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr)

Aging Baby Boomers have all sorts of strategies for keeping their intellects sharp, from physical exercise to computerized brain games. Newly published research offers another, somewhat less taxing approach to retaining your mental acuity: eating chocolate.

The results of a large-scale study "support recent clinical trials suggesting that regular intake of cocoa flavanols may have a beneficial effect on cognitive function, and possibly protect against normal, age-related cognitive decline," concludes a research team led by Georgina Crichton of the University of South Australia.*

Even after taking into consideration such variables as lifestyle, overall diet, and cardiovascular health, "our study demonstrated positive associations between habitual chocolate consumption and cognitive performance," the researchers write in the journal Appetite.

It's a relief to find a food so many of us enjoy is actually good for our brains.

The researchers used data from the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study, which looked at cardiovascular risk factors and mental functioning in a large number of adults living in Syracuse, New York (at the study's outset). The sample featured 968 participants, all of whom filled out surveys revealing such factors as their socioeconomic status, smoking history, physical activity, body mass index, and dietary habits.

As part of the latter questionnaire, participants indicated how often they consumed chocolate, on a scale from "never" to "once or more per day."

Brain function was assessed using a battery of tests "designed to measure a wide range of cognitive domains," including working memory (the amount of information you can grasp at the same time to carry out complex tasks), visual-spatial memory and organization, and episodic memory (how well you can recall past events).

"Chocolate intake was positively associated with cognitive performance across a range of cognitive domains," the researchers report. "The associations between more frequent weekly chocolate consumption and cognitive performance remained significant after adjustment for a number of cardiovascular risk factors."

Even better, this effect appears to occur "irrespective of other dietary habits." What's more, it appears to be genuinely causal—additional analysis found no evidence for the alternative explanation that brainier people are more likely to pick up the chocolate habit.

As Crichton and her colleagues note, these results back up laboratory studies from 2007 and 2013 finding a link between chocolate and cognitive functioning. Crichton's research focused on flavanols, naturally occurring compounds found in cocoa beans. They are abundant in most dark chocolate, but far less present in milk chocolate.

Unfortunately, the Syracuse study did not differentiate between which type of chocolate participants commonly consumed. But presuming flavanols really are the key, you're going to want to choose a dark variety, with a high percentage of cocoa solids.

The researchers caution that "appropriate caloric intake" remains important, meaning that you can't use this research as an excuse to make Godiva one of your basic food groups. Nevertheless, it's a relief to find a food so many of us enjoy is actually good for our brains (as well as our hearts), at least when consumed in moderation.

Humorist Dave Barry is widely quoted as saying: "Your hand and your mouth agreed many years ago that, as far as chocolate is concerned, there is no need to involve your brain." Well, perhaps your brain realized all it had to do was sit back and enjoy the benefits.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

*Update — February 17, 2016: This article has been updated to more accurately describe Georgina Crichton's study.

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