Cocoa Extract May Help Reduce Risk of Cognitive Decline in Older Adults

Cocoa Extract May Help Reduce Risk of Cognitive Decline in Older Adults
  • Older adults taking daily cocoa extract supplements saw a modest boost in cognitive function, but only if they had lower diet quality.
  • Researchers say it’s too soon to recommend coca extract supplements for improving cognitive function.
  • Many lifestyle interventions can reduce the risk of dementia, including better diet, regular physical activity, and good sleep hygiene.

Older adults who took a daily cocoa extract supplement for two years saw modest improvements in cognitive function, a new randomized clinical trial found.

The benefits, though, were only seen in people who had lower diet quality at the start of the study. Those with healthy dietary patterns didn’t see a similar boost in cognition.

“[The findings] raise the possibility of utilizing flavanol-rich diets or supplements to enhance cognitive function among older adults with lower diet quality,” said Chirag Vyas, MB,BS from the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School also carried out the study, which was published Dec. 7 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Benefits of cocoa extract for those with lower quality diet

The new study, which is part of the larger Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), included 573 older males and females who were randomly assigned to take daily cocoa extract or an inactive placebo for two years.

The average age of participants was 70 years, with around half female. In addition, 11% of participants reported eating chocolate daily before the start of the trial.

People in the cocoa extract group took two capsules a day containing a total of 500 milligrams of cocoa flavanols, including 80 milligrams of epicatechin.

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Flavanols, also known as flavan-3-ols, are a sub-class of plant compounds known as flavonoids. Flavanols are found in teas, cocoa-based products, grapes, apples and berries.

Participants underwent cognitive testing when they were enrolled in the study; 492 participants repeated the testing two years later.

When researchers examined data for the entire group, daily cocoa extract supplements had no effect on people’s overall cognition.

However, when they looked at people with lower diet quality at the start of the study, people taking daily cocoa supplements had “relatively better” changes in overall cognition and executive function.

Executive function is a set of cognitive skills needed for self-control and managing behaviors.

The results are consistent with the findings of an earlier study done among COSMOS participants, which found that daily flavanols improved a certain type of memory in older adults with lower diet quality.

However, it contrasts with another COSMOS studyTrusted Source, which found that a daily multivitamin/mineral improved overall cognition, but cocoa extract had no effect. This research, though, did not look separately at people with lower diet quality.

The new study included funding and other support from Mars Edge, a segment of food company Mars; and Pfizer Consumer Healthcare (now Haleon). Neither company was involved in analyzing the data, interpreting the results or preparing the study manuscript.

Too early to recommend cocoa extract

Although the study shows a potential benefit of cocoa extra supplements on cognition for people with lower diet quality, more research is needed.

“Based on our results, we can’t recommend daily supplementation of cocoa extract for preserving cognitive function,” Vyas told Healthline.

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“But our findings still underscore the significance of factoring in diet and nutritional status in future trials that are assessing the impact of cocoa extract supplements on cognition,” he said.

He would like to see future studies done in a more diverse population, as well as specifically focusing on people with lower diet quality.

Dr. Thomas Holland, a physician scientist in the Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition at RUSH University in Chicago, said the new study is intriguing because it focused on such a specific food compound, with very specific flavanols.

He contrasts this with a study that he co-authored, which looked at overall dietary intake of flavonols, another type of flavonoid.

In that study, published in 2020 in NeurologyTrusted Source, he and his colleagues assessed participants’ intake of flavonols by asking detailed questions about what they ate, including flavonol-rich foods like kale, spinach, tomatoes, olive oil, beans and tea.

The results of that showed that people who consumed more flavonols in their food had a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.


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