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Red Wine Good for Old and Young
"Free radicals" are natural and normal side effects of your body's processing of oxygen into energy. "Antioxidants" are those molecules that help your body remove those free radicals before they can contribute to such conditions as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Researchers believe that as the body ages the process does not work as well, which may help explain why older people appear to be more likely to have these conditions.

The little things do matter. (A lot!)
I have reported on Dr. Wansink's work in Dr. Gourmet columns previously and will admit to being something of a fan of his. As director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Dr. Wansink and his colleagues spend time doing elegantly designed studies to determine exactly what motivates our eating patterns. They have studied everything from the size of ice cream bowls to people's reaction to stale popcorn. The research is reported with a wonderful attitude that is at once clearly serious research while still being fun and informative.

'Tis the Season for Cocoa....
Especially, it appears, if you have heart disease. Like tea, coffee and wine, cocoa is rich in flavonoids - plant compounds that have been associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's Disease (Good News for Those Who Love Chocolate, Wine or Tea), as well as improving cholesterol scores (Plant Sterols in Chocolate) and even high blood pressure (Hot Chocolate for High Blood Pressure).


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Good News for Those Who Love Chocolate, Wine or Tea

Wine GlassI've talked before about the positive effects of polyphenols, which are found in fruits like grapes and in tea, red wine, cocoa and coffee. The largest subtype of polyphenols are called flavonoids. There's been some really interesting research linking the intake of flavonoids and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's Disease and dementia in general. On the one hand, it seems that moderate alcohol use may help prevent Alzheimer's, but on the other hand, too much alcohol has long been regarded as one of the causes of dementia.

Tea, similarly, appears to be protective in moderate amounts, helping to prevent the cognitive impairment that goes along with aging. But too much of tea's polyphenols, at higher concentrations (like what you might find in supplements), appear to have a damaging effect on the body's cells.

Dark chocolate, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a damaging effect on the body in high amounts or concentrations. (Other than the risk of overweight, of course.) Drinking cocoa, which is high in flavonoids, is associated with increased blood flow to the brain and it's possible that it could help combat those conditions that are affected by decreased blood flow to the brain (like dementia and stroke).

Researchers in Norway and the United Kingdom worked together to design a study of the effects of regular consumption of flavonoid-rich foods on the brain's function, as measured in several standard tests (J Nutr 2009:139(1);120-127).

Over 2000 elderly men and women, all born between 1925 and 1927, were recruited from an ongoing cognitive study in Norway to participate in this particular study. The participants answered a detailed Food Frequency Questionnaire regarding their food intake over the year previous to the study, which included specific questions regarding chocolate, wine and tea intake. They were then were subjected to a battery of tests of their brains' function using standardized oral and written tests.

Chocolate BarThe researchers found that in general, those who consumed all three of the flavonoid-rich foods (chocolate, tea, wine), were at least 64% less likely to perform poorly on the cognitive tests than those who said that they didn't have any of the three over the past year. The more of the three foods they consumed, the better they did on the tests.

What this means for you

While you shouldn't take this as a green light to eat all the chocolate you want and drink as much wine as you want, it does mean that moderate intake of both of these as well as drinking tea (black or green tea as opposed to herbal teas) may well help protect your brain from some of the effects of normal aging. So go ahead – have a glass of wine with dinner if you'd like to, or some really good chocolate once in a while. In moderation, they may be good for your brain.

First posted: February 18, 2009