Does Chocolate Help Your Memory?

Chocolate—most of us love it. But turns out, chocolate is good for our bodies besides our tastebuds. Science has shown that cocoa, the primary ingredient in chocolate, may boast brain health benefits—improving both cognition and insulin functioning.

Woman holding glass of hot chocolate
macinate /Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Physical Benefits in the Brain

Some studies have shown that cocoa, the primary ingredient in chocolate, improves the actual health of the brain. For example, MRI testing has shown increased functioning in the hippocampal area—an area typically affected in early Alzheimer's disease—with high levels of cocoa consumption.​

Another study on drinking hot cocoa demonstrated increased cognitive scores for the participants who drank hot cocoa twice a day. The people involved in this study did not have dementia and were over the age of 65 years.

Improved Insulin Functioning in the Brain and Improved Cognitive Scores

Another recent research study concluded that cocoa flavanols can reduce the effects of aging in the brain by improving the insulin functioning in the brain. Participants in this study were given a daily cocoa drink for eight weeks and administered the Trail Making Test, the verbal fluency test and the Mini-Mental Status Exam. Half of the participants received cocoa drinks that had a high level of flavanols; the other half received drinks with a low level. The participants who drank the high-level cocoa drinks had greater improvements in their scores on the cognitive tests than those with the low level cocoa drink. Insulin functioning also improved significantly in the high cocoa flavanol level group.

Research has shown that impaired insulin functioning in the brain has been correlated with the development of cognitive decline. Due to this, some scientists refer to Alzheimer's as type 3 diabetes.

Improved Cognition in People Diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment

Researchers conducted a study published in 2012 with participants who had mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI often, but not always, progresses to Alzheimer's disease. The participants involved were assigned to imbibe cocoa drinks containing high, medium, or low levels of cocoa flavanols for eight weeks. The results showed that those who consumed the higher levels of cocoa flavanols performed significantly better on cognitive testing at the end of the study.

Will All Chocolate Help Your Brain?

It's important to note that, unfortunately, the typical milk chocolate bar is not what is being tested here. Most scientific researchers use less-processed cocoa powder because unprocessed cocoa contains a higher level of flavanols. Flavanols serve as antioxidants and reverse some of the damage done over time to cells. The healthiest chocolate appears to be the least processed (and thus—more bitter) chocolate.

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  • Brickman AM, Khan UA, Provenzano FA, et al. Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Nat Neurosci. 2014;17(12):1798-803.

  • Desideri G, Kwik-uribe C, Grassi D, et al. Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) study. Hypertension. 2012;60(3):794-801.

  • Mastroiacovo D, Kwik-uribe C, Grassi D, et al. Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study—a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(3):538-48.

  • Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013;75(3):716-27.

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.