Researchers found that the memory function of adults with a poor diet at the start of the trial improved after they consumed 500mg of flavanols a day in the form of a supplement.
Adam Brickman, professor of neuropsychology at New York’s Columbia University, said the finding “raises the possibility of using flavanol-rich diets to improve cognitive function”.
In the study, funded by food giant Mars, more than 3,500 healthy adults aged around 71 took a 500mg supplement or a dummy pill for three years.
They underwent memory tests in that time and completed diet surveys.
Researchers said memory scores improved slightly for those who took flavanols – but, in that group, people with poor diet and low flavanol use at the start had bigger improvements.
That sub-set saw scores rise by an average of 10.5 per cent compared with the dummy pill group and they were 16 per cent up on baseline memory.
Researchers said flavanols have no effect on people who do not have a deficiency of them – but, for people who have low intake of the compound, consuming foods rich in flavanols may improve memory function.
Gunter Kuhnle, professor of nutrition and food science at Reading University and co-investigator of the study, called the findings “exciting”.
He said results “suggest that there is an optimum amount of flavanols in the diet” – around 500mg daily.
Professor Aedin Cassidy, chairman in nutrition and preventative medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “This is a really important study showing that a dose of flavonoids called flavanols – present in tea, cocoa, apples, berries – is key for improving memory in the ageing brain.”
She added: “The dose required for these improvements in brain health is readily achievable…for example, one mug of tea, six squares of dark chocolate, a couple of servings of berries and apples would together provide about 500mg.”
But David Curtis, honorary professor at University College London’s genetics institute, claimed that the study showed “those taking a flavanol supplement for years had about the same memory function as those taking a placebo.
“The study fails to provide evidence that increasing flavanol intake is beneficial.”
The research appears in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
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