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Flavanols: the secret to staying sharp

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Make sure you have plenty of flavanols in your diet once you hit your 60s, and you’ll maintain a good memory and cognitive skills into old age

Flavanols, anti-inflammatory nutrients in vegetables and fruits, can reverse “cognitive aging” and memory loss as we get older.

Consuming around 500 mg of flavanols every day can reverse the neurological damage that can happen as we age, especially if we’re eating a poor diet.

Researchers from Columbia University saw brain markers of cognitive aging reverse in a group of 3,562 people who were all aged 60 years and older, and who had been consuming a low-flavanol diet, when they took a 500 mg cocoa flavanol supplement every day for three years. However, improvements were seen after just a year, compared to those who were given a dummy placebo supplement.1

Those taking the flavanol supplements were recording an average 10.5 percent higher score on memory tests after the first year compared to the placebo group, which was a 16 percent improvement over their memory scores at the start. Brain scans showed improvement in the hippocampus area of the brain, which regulates memory and the ability to learn new skills.

People who were already consuming a flavanol-rich diet didn’t see any further cognitive improvement, however.

Just as the young brain needs specific nutrients to help it develop, the aging brain needs flavanols to maintain cognition and memory function, the researchers say.

How to get your daily dose of flavanols

Consuming 500 mg of flavanols every day can keep you mentally sharp. Here’s how this intake might look:

DAILY: Two servings of apples or berries

PLUS: A cup of tea

PLUS: Six squares of dark chocolate

OR: A 500 g cocoa flavanol supplement once a day

Know your flavonoids

Flavonoids are phytonutrients—plant-based nutrients—that are found in plants and vegetables. There are six primary types of flavonoids:

  • Flavanols
  • Flavones
  • Flavan-3-ols
  • Flavanones
  • Anthocyanidins
  • Isoflavones

The main sources of flavonoids

Flavonoids of all types are found in a wide variety of foods.

Here are the main sources:

  • Berries: all contain flavanols, but the highest levels are in blackberries. Blueberries, cherries and raspberries run blackberries a close second and also contain the entire flavonoid family. Strawberries only have moderate amounts of one variety, anthocyanidins.
  • Red cabbage: one of the richest sources of anthocyanidins, which protect against cancer, heart disease and, of course, age-related cognitive decline.
  • Onions: a rich source of flavanols with special qualities that protect against prostate cancer.
  • Kale: another great source of flavanols.
  • Parsley: contains over 130 mg of flavanols per gram.
  • Tea: one of the easiest ways to top off your flavonoid levels, and the nutrient is found in all types of tea—green, black and oolong.
  • Red wine: rich in flavanols, and moderate drinking has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and especially heart attack and stroke.
  • Dark chocolate: has a main ingredient of cocoa, which is high in flavanols that boost cognitive function and protect the heart.
  • Citrus fruits: all contain flavones. Juicing oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes, and tangerines is a great way to get your flavone boost.
  • Soybeans: a great source of isoflavones, which protect against cancers that affect the reproductive system, such as breast, ovarian, prostate and testicular. Try edamame, tofu, tempeh and soy sauce.



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  1. PNAS, 2023; 120(23): e2216932120
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