February Is Much More Than Chocolate and Flowers

February is known mostly for Valentine’s Day. Giving boxes of chocolate and beautiful flowers to loved ones is common. But it is also heart health month.

The health of our hearts also is linked to our brain health. Poor blood flow in the brain can chip away at brain functioning.

When thinking skills become increasingly fuzzy and forgetfulness gets to be a way of life, an early form of dementia known as mild cognitive impairment may be setting in.

Often, the first reaction is to attribute these changes to the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease. But blood flow problems may be to blame, as well.

Dr. Albert Hofman, chair of the department of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said “An estimated one-third of all cases of dementia, including those identified as Alzheimer’s, can be attributed to vascular factors.” Blood flow problems may be to blame.

Vascular (blood vessel) problems include atherosclerosis (the buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries) and arteriosclerosis (the stiffening of arteries with age). Both of these are well-known contributors to heart disease. These same processes can also damage brain function by interfering with the steady supply of oxygen-rich blood that nourishes brain cells.

In the case of a stroke, sometimes called a “brain attack,” large areas of brain tissue die when a blood clot in a major brain artery abruptly halts the flow of blood.  One in three stroke survivors will eventually develop dementia.

The subtle injuries are caused by tiny blockages in the small vessels deep within the brain. Silent strokes are 10 to 20 times more common than overt strokes. The microscopic damage they leave behind also raises the risk that dementia will emerge at a later date.

Having blood vessels compromised by plaque buildup can also pave the way for Alzheimer’s. The accumulation of deposits of a protein known as beta-amyloid-the hallmark of the disease. It is the direct consequence of what doctors call hypoperfusion. This means the brain is not getting a sufficient supply of blood over the long term.

Dr. Hofman, reports that a possible explanation for this is that examining symptoms and the treatment of cardiovascular risks, including high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, may also lead to better brain health.


Can Chocolate Improve Memory?

This is wishful thinking. Sad right? But not all is lost. Henriette Van Praag, PhD is the author of a new study that gives us new hope. Dr. Van Praag has discovered it is a nutrient found in chocolate that helps memory. Not the chocolate itself.

Van Praag’s study found that when mice were fed a diet rich in epicatechin, a flavonoid in the cocoa bean, they performed better on memory tests than mice that had not been fed the nutrient. What’s more, brain studies revealed that those that had consumed epicatechin had more blood vessels in their brains. The researchers also saw increased activity in the genes involved in learning.

Van Praag says, “We’re not sure of the underlying mechanism.”  Here research was done on mice. Young mice at that. The next study will be done on older mice. Then humans. While we can over indulge in chocolate, cocoa beans are rich in epicatechin, tea, grapes and blueberries also contain it!


Chocolate Also Helps Our Skin

Yes this is true! When eaten, flavanol-rich cocoa, the main ingredient in dark chocolate, improves skin’s texture, thickness, hydration, and blood flow! It may even boost your skin’s defenses against the sun by up to 25 percent. Why? It packs serious antioxidant power. But it shouldn’t be overdone. Chocolate is high in fat and calories too. The use of sunscreen shouldn’t be ignored.

Researchers discovered this chocolate benefit in a study of women who consumed half a cup of cocoa (containing 329 milligrams of flavanols per serving, the amount in a 3-1/2 ounce serving of dark chocolate) daily for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the women experienced less skin dryness, scaling, and roughness compared to the beginning of the study. Also, their skin was thicker, exhibited improved blood flow, and was even more resistant to sun damage.