A scene from a supermarket as an older male adult pushes his shopping cart full of items as female shopper does the same in the backgroundShare on Pinterest
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 several health benefits.
  • A​ study found that older adults with a diet low in flavanols may benefit from flavanol supplements.
  • The results also indicate that low-flavanol diets may contribute to memory decline.
  • People interested in consuming more flavanols can increase their intake of certain foods, such as green tea and grapes, following appropriate dietary recommendations from specialists.

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

Researchers are still seeking to understand how diet affects memory in older adults.

AA​ recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that diets low in flavanols may contribute to age-related declines in memory.

The researchers found that people who had diets low in flavanols and then took a flavanol supplement saw improved memory function. The results demonstrate how flavanol consumption may impact memory function for certain individuals.

Researchers note that even adults who don’t have cognitive disorders experience a certain level of cognitive decline as they age. Since people are living longer, it’s essential to understand what actions can support cognitive function in specific individuals.

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

The researchers divided participants into two groups. One group received a 500mg/day cocoa flavanol supplement, while the other received a placebo. This intervention took place for three years.

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

However, they did see improvement in specific study sub-groups. Among participants who had scored for the lowest-quality diet, there was an improvement in memory function for participants getting the flavanol intervention.

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

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

The study’s results 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. Consuming flavanols may be related to a number of health benefits that researchers are still seeking to understand.

Kristen Carli, MS, 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 demonstrated through research to be beneficial to heart health and lowering of blood pressure. Because of their strong antioxidant properties, flavanols are very effective at reducing oxidative stress, which 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 current study was the influence of flavanols on memory and cognitive function. Study author Dr. Scott A. Small explained the study goals to MNT:

“The primary goal was to follow up on clues that emerged from our previous study: that dietary flavanols are not merely a supplement for cognitive aging, but that they might represent an actual ‘nutrient’ that when deficient, can cause or drive cognitive aging.”

The study authors noted that the results suggest that flavanol consumption may become a part of future dietary advice.

“We are not only living longer, but we are living cognitively more demanding lives. Our findings suggest that flavanol consumption might be considered in future dietary recommendations, perhaps together with the flavanol biomarker, specifically geared toward preventing or improving brain health in later life,” they said.

Carli said regular consumption of flavanols was important.

“This study highlights how regular intake of these compounds directly affected the amount of memory-related decline seen in participants,” she said.

T​his study did have key limitations.

First, researchers noted some limitations in the randomization process, which could have skewed the study’s findings. In addition, the study included a predominantly white, highly-educated, female population, which might limit the generalisability of the findings to the wider population. The authors note that future studies should include participants from more diverse backgrounds.

The study also cannot definitively prove that low flavanol intake causes initial poor memory function. The collection of certain data relied on self-reporting from participants, which introduces the risk for errors.

T​here is a need for further research on flavanols and memory 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, additional studies are needed to validate further and confirm that dietary flavanols are nutrients vital for the aging brain:

  1. Test the flavanols in people who have a more dramatic deficiency 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 nutrient specialists to create a dietary plan that fits unique needs.

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

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

“… grapes, onions, broccoli, berries, tomatoes, peaches, and kale. I would recommend eating at least one of these foods daily. Not only will you reap the cognitive benefits of these foods, but these foods have tons of other beneficial nutrients in them, including fiber, vitamins, [and] minerals.”