Brain Health: Can Increasing Dietary Flavanols Boost Memory?

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Adding more fruits and vegetables to one\’s diet can increase the amount of flavanols consumed. Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • Many fruits and vegetables contain flavanols, constituents with numerous health benefits.
  • One study found that older adults with a diet low in flavanols may benefit from flavanol supplements.
  • The findings also indicate that diets low in flavanols may contribute to memory decline.
  • People interested in consuming more flavanols can increase their intake of certain foods, such as green tea and grapes, by following appropriate dietary recommendations from specialists.

Diet plays a significant role in physical health. As people get older, their dietary needs can change, and diet can impact several areas of health, including memory function.

Researchers are still trying to figure it out how diet affects memory in the elderly.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that diets low in flavanols can contribute to age-related memory decline.

Researchers found that people who ate a low flavanol diet and then took a flavanol supplement saw improved memory function. The findings demonstrate how flavanol consumption may impact memory function for some individuals.

The researchers note that adults who don\’t have cognitive impairments also experience some level of cognitive decline with age. As people are living longer, it is essential to understand which actions can support cognitive function in specific individuals.

This particular study was a large-scale, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that included over 3,500 older adults. This number included women aged 65 and older and men aged 60 and older.

The researchers divided the participants into two groups. One group received a cocoa flavanol supplement of 500 mg per day, while the other received a placebo. This intervention lasted three years.

The researchers used several tests to examine memory and cognitive function. Overall, they found that the flavanol intervention group did not show a significant improvement in cognitive function compared to the placebo group.

However, they did see improvement in specific study subgroups. Among the participants who scored for the lowest quality diet, there was an improvement in memory function for the participants who received the flavanol intervention.

The researchers were also able to test a specific biomarker that helped measure flavanol levels in a subset of 1,361 participants at baseline.

Among the participants with the lowest biomarker levels, the researchers saw an improvement in memory function after the flavanol intervention. Finally, they also found that improvements in the participants\’ biomarker levels were associated with improvements in memory.

The results of the studies suggest the importance of getting a certain amount of flavanols in the diet.

Flavanols are bioactive compounds in several foods, including grapes, green tea and chocolate. Flavanol consumption may be related to a number of health benefits that researchers are still trying to figure out.

Kristen Carli, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist who was not involved in the study, explained to Medical News Today that flavanols are a type of compound found in plant foods, called flavonoids, that have antioxidant properties.

Flavanols, in particular, have been shown through research to be beneficial for heart health and lowering blood pressure. Because of their strong antioxidant properties, flavanols are very effective at reducing oxidative stress, which if left unmanaged can lead to cellular damage, often resulting in chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Kristen Carli, MS, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

The area of ​​interest for the present study was the influence of flavanols on memory and cognition. The author of the study, Dr. Scott A. Small, explained the study\’s goals to MNT:

The main goal was to follow up on clues from our previous study: that dietary flavanols are not simply a supplement for cognitive aging, but could be a real nutrient that, when deficient, can cause or drive cognitive ageing.

The study authors noted that the findings suggest that flavanol consumption could become part of future dietary recommendations.

We are not only living longer, but living more cognitively demanding lives. Our findings suggest that flavanol consumption could be considered in future dietary recommendations, perhaps alongside the flavanol biomarker specifically geared towards prevention or improvement of brain health in later life, they said.

Carli said regular consumption of flavanols is important.

This study highlights how regularly taking these compounds directly affected the amount of memory-related decline seen in the participants, he said.

This study had fundamental limitations.

First, the researchers noted some limitations in the randomization process, which may have skewed the study results. Additionally, the study included a predominantly white, highly educated female population, which may limit the generalizability of the results to the larger population. The authors note that future studies should include participants from more diverse backgrounds.

The study also cannot conclusively prove that low flavanol intake causes poor initial memory function. Some data collection relied on participants\’ self-report, which introduces the risk of bias.

More research on flavanols and memory is needed to understand the full impact of flavanols on cognitive outcomes.

Dr. Small noted the following areas for continued research:

Given the importance of the conclusions, more studies are needed to further validate and confirm that dietary flavanols are vital nutrients for the aging brain:

  1. Testing for flavanols in people who are more dramatically deficient than those in our current study (in which, based on the flavanol biomarker, people were only mildly deficient).
  2. Better understand the precise mechanisms by which flavanol deficiency causes memory decline.

Each person\’s dietary needs are different. People can work with doctors and nutrition specialists to create a diet plan that fits specific needs.

The results of this particular study seem to indicate the importance of older adults getting enough flavanols in their diets. People can talk to specialists about ways to increase flavanol intake as appropriate.

Kristen Carli, RD, MS, noted a few ways people can increase the flavanols in their diet:

grapes, onions, broccoli, berries, tomatoes, peaches and cabbage. I would recommend eating at least one of these foods a day. Not only will you reap the cognitive benefits of these foods, but these foods contain tons of other beneficial nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, [and] minerals.

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