Everyone loves a study that turns one of our favourite vices into a health benefit. This week, the news headlines tell us “eating chocolate improves brain function” and that it “could help protect against normal age-related decline”.
The study, published this month in the peer-reviewed journal, Appetite, found that memory and abstract thinking improved in those reporting more chocolate consumption. These effects were reported not to be influenced by factors such as age, weight and general health measures.
Before you reach for a Mars bar or a Dairy Milk, let’s take a step back.
This is a correlational study. That means it shows an association between people who reported regularly eating chocolate and better scores on brain function tests. It doesn’t show that chocolate consumption directly improves brain function.
Other factors are also at play. The people who consumed more chocolate also had better diets and drank less alcohol. And both groups relied on their memory to report their chocolate consumption levels.
Sorry folks, but you won’t be able to rely on this study to justify your 3pm chocolate binge.
Watch: Can’t live without chocolate? You need to try this easy-peasy mug cake recipe. (Post continues after video.)
How was the study conducted?
The 968 participants were from the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study, which has followed the same group of New Yorkers for more than 35 years. The participants undertake questionnaires and physical examinations at various intervals so researchers can determine changes associated with ageing, the development of heart disease and also cognitive performance.
In 2006, the participants reported how often during the week they ate a variety of foods, including chocolate, meat, eggs, breads, rice, fruit, vegetables, dairy, nuts and beverages such as tea, coffee, water, fruit juice and alcohol. Chocolate was not differentiated according to whether it was dark, milk or white chocolate.
The researchers compared those who never or rarely ate chocolate (337 people) and those who ate chocolate at least once a week (631 people).
Participants were given various brain function tests – including remembering where things were (spatial memory), abstract reasoning, working memory and attention. The relationships between chocolate intake and performance on the cognitive tasks were then analysed.
The results from people who had dementia were excluded, as this is a serious cognitive impairment, as were people who had experienced a stroke, as this would skew the results.