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Calling All Chocolate Lovers: Cocoa May Improve Age-Related Memory Loss

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It sounds like a chocolate lover's dream come true: Researchers at Columbia University have found that an antioxidant present in chocolate appears to reverse visual memory loss associated with aging. While the study was small, it could have large implications and is already encouraging further research.

Thirty-seven healthy individuals, ages 50 to 69, were divided into two groups. Half drank two beverages a day, each containing 450 mg of flavanols (a component found in cocoa), while the other half consumed a single, daily beverage containing just 10 mg, Time reports. After three months, the participants were given a pattern recognition test, an exercise that measures one's ability to create new memories. (It's what's at play when you are introduced to someone new, and are then able to recognize them on a second meeting).

Related: A Possible Perk for Coffee Addicts: Better Long-Term Memory

The flavanol-heavy drinkers absolutely smoked the other group, performing 25 percent better on average. More interestingly, their performance was on par with people two to three decades younger, Time reports.

The researchers also performed MRIs on all the participants and found that compared with the low-flavanol group, the 900 mg-a-day flavanol drinkers showed more activity in the dentate gyrus (an area of the brain located in the hippocampus and linked to the formation of new memories).  “I think it provides proof of principle that diet could potentially reverse an aging process,” Scott Small, the study's lead researcher, told Time.

Previous research has tied cocoa flavanols to a number of health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and hypertension. A new, extensive five-year study on the effects of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular disease is slated to begin in 2015 and will hopefully reveal more about the antioxidant's impact on memory.

Related: 3 Easy Tricks to Improve Your Memory

While Small's study was partially sponsored by the candymaker Mars Inc. (additional sponsors included the National Institutes of Health and two research foundations) the takeaway, sadly, isn't that gorging oneself on chocolate bars is the secret to a better memory. The most delicious ones – your Snick Bars, Reese's Cups, and Milky Ways – don't contain very much actual cocoa (although though they do contain quite a lot of actual fat and actual sugar), and they certainly don't contain enough cocoa flavanols to have much of an impact; to ingest 900 mg of cocoa flavanols, you'd need to put away 25 candy bars, according to Time.

“I’m a physician, and that’s not what I’m recommending,” Small told the outlet.

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