Unveiling Flavanols: An Underappreciated Ally in Memory Restoration and Executive Functioning?

Published June 6th, 2023

Dr. Akash Kumar MD

Medical Director at Ann Arbor Psychiatry. Lecturer. Clinician. Research wonk. Board certified Psychiatrist. Passionate psychotherapist. Seeing patients across Michigan with his team.

In a groundbreaking study recently published in the highly reputable Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers Adam M. Brickman, Lok-Kin Yeung, and their team have presented compelling evidence that dietary flavanols—bioactive compounds found in certain fruits and vegetables—can have a significant impact on memory in older adults, particularly those with poor dietary habits. The importance of this rigorous, academic pursuit of knowledge cannot be overstated, as it offers vital insights into the intricate relationship between diet and cognitive health. Flavanols have already been shown to possibly function as anti-obesity agents, though that data was less clear and is referenced below.

The research took the form of a large-scale, three-year intervention study involving 3,562 older adults who were randomly assigned either a cocoa extract supplement (containing 500mg of dietary flavanols per day) or a placebo. The study’s findings were multifaceted and nuanced, but the most striking result was the observation that, while an improvement in memory in all participants after one year was not statistically significant, the flavanol intervention restored memory among participants in lower tertiles of habitual diet quality or habitual flavanol consumption.

…the most striking result was the observation that the flavanol intervention restored memory among participants in lower tertiles of habitual diet quality or habitual flavanol consumption.

The study paints a hopeful picture. Its findings suggest that dietary flavanols can be seen in the context of a depletion-repletion paradigm, which proposes that low flavanol consumption can act as a driver of the hippocampal-dependent component of cognitive aging. In simpler terms, inadequate intake of flavanols might be contributing to memory decline in older adults, and increasing flavanol consumption could potentially reverse this effect.

There is a need for more comprehensive and long-term studies to establish the extent of the benefits flavanols might offer. Nevertheless, this research shows the potential of dietary interventions as an approach to maintaining cognitive health. Side note: see this meta analysis showing that flavanols specifically may be anti-obesity agents. “Flavanols are potential anti-obesity agents, a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials – PubMed (nih.gov)

At our clinic, we pride ourselves on providing our patients with a comprehensive range of treatment options tailored to their unique needs and conditions. For instance, in addressing ADHD and executive function difficulties, we offer a blend of specialized psychotherapy focused on these conditions, a spectrum of both stimulant and non-stimulant medications, and guidance on evidence-based natural treatments. It’s this integrated, holistic approach that ensures our patients receive the best care possible.

However, we should not overlook the role of nutrition and diet in cognitive health. Brickman, Yeung, and their team’s study underscores this point, prompting a reevaluation of the importance of dietary elements in cognitive health. While the research particularly focuses on memory restoration in older adults, we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that these findings might extend to non-age-related issues such as ADHD and executive functioning.

While the research landscape of flavanols and cognitive function remains complex and full of uncharted territories, the potential benefits highlighted in this study warrant serious consideration and further investigation. The work of dedicated researchers like Brickman, Yeung, and their team serve as an important reminder for every clinician working at the mind-brain interface to stay abreast of emerging findings and consider how they might impact our clinical approach.