Hot cocoa may help keep seniors' brains healthy

Drinking hot cocoa during the cold winter months is a favorite activity of people both young and old, and a new study suggests seniors may enjoy benefits other than staying warm. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital found that older adults who drank two cups of hot cocoa each day over the course of one month saw marked improvements to their memory and blood flow to the brain.

The findings, published in the journal Neurology, were based on a study of 60 dementia-free subjects with an average age of 73. Researchers instructed the participants to drink two cups of hot cocoa each day over the course of 30 days with one caveat: they could not consume any other chocolate during that period. By the end of the study, scientists found that participants enjoyed an 8 percent improvement in blood flow to their brain, and also reduced the time it took them to complete memory tests by about 50 seconds. Taken together, the improvements may decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

"We're learning more about blood flow in the brain and its effect on thinking skills," said study author Dr. Farzaneh A. Sorond. "As different areas of the brain need more energy to complete their tasks, they also need greater blood flow. This relationship, called neurovascular coupling, may play an important role in diseases such as Alzheimer's."

This isn't the first time chocolate has been tied to healthy aging. Previous studies have found that moderate chocolate consumption, especially dark chocolate, has numerous benefits. For instance, a 2012 study from Australia's University of Adelaide found that cocoa compounds may be able to help seniors keep their blood pressure at a healthy level. Chocolate may also help seniors reduce their risk of stroke and manage their cholesterol.