New research on chocolate and heart health

Medical Minutes

Benefits from eating chocolate

Historically, chocolate has been recognized as a vasodilator, meaning that it widens blood vessels and lowers blood pressure in the long run. However, chocolate also contains some powerful stimulants. Now, researchers are reporting that adults who eat chocolate receive immediate brain benefits. They have found that the brain is more alert and attentive after consumption of chocolate and blood pressure also increased for a short time.

“Chocolate is indeed a stimulant and it activates the brain in a really special way,” said study investigator Larry Stevens, who is a professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University (NAU). “It can increase brain characteristics of attention, and it also significantly affects blood pressure levels.”

The study, published in the journal NeuroRegulation, is the first to examine the acute effects of chocolate on specific actions in the brain and the first-ever study of chocolate consumption performed using electroencephalography or EEG technology. EEG studies take images of the brain while it is performing a cognitive task and measure the brain activity.

Stevens and his colleagues performed the EEG study with 122 adults. The researchers examined the EEG levels and blood pressure effects of consuming a 60 percent cacao confection. The results for the participants who consumed the 60 percent cacao chocolate showed that the brain was more alert and attentive after consumption. Stevens said that a regular chocolate bar with high sugar and milk content won’t be as good. It is the high cacao content chocolate with a substance called L-theanine that may be highly beneficial. L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea and it acts as a relaxant.

“L-theanine is a really fascinating product that lowers blood pressure and produces what we call alpha waves in the brain that are very calm and peaceful,” said Stevens. “We thought that if chocolate acutely elevates blood pressure, and L-theanine lowers blood pressure, then maybe the L-theanine would counteract the short-term hypertensive effects of chocolate.”

For participants who consumed the high-cacao content chocolate with L-theanine, researchers recorded an immediate drop in blood pressure. “It’s remarkable. The potential here is for a heart-healthy chocolate confection that contains a high level of cacao with L-theanine that is good for your heart, lowers blood pressure and helps you pay attention,” said Stevens. He hopes the results of this study will encourage manufacturers to investigate further and consider the health benefits of developing chocolate bars made with high-cacao content and L-theanine.

Dissolving heart stents showing promise

For the nearly half a million Americans each year who need stents to hold open clogged or damaged heart arteries, a new class of dissolving devices is beginning to pass clinical trial hurdles and raising the possibility of use in the coming years.

In Europe, two such bioresorbable stents are commercially available (tiny tubes or scaffolds) made of polymers that slowly dissolve away within a few years after surgery. In theory, the experimental dissolvable devices may overcome some serious, long-term problems associated with today’s metallic stents. The permanent presence of a metal stent prevents a vessel from flexing in response to normal physical changes, which can damage the vessel over time, and an accelerated form of atherosclerosis inside the stents can cause them to fail.

According to several studies published this year, Abbott’s Absorb, a dissolving stent that slowly releases the drug everolimus, performed nearly as well or just as well as its metal drug-releasing counterpart. The studies, called ABSORB III, ABSORB II and ABSORB Japan, represent one of the top cardiovascular research advances in the past year, according to the American Heart Association. However, the dissolving heart stent has failed to show broad or significant superiority over a conventional drug-eluting stent. In the ABSORB III study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in November, patients with angina were slightly more likely to develop a clot near the insertion site if they had the Absorb stent (1.5 percent versus 0.7 percent).

In the ABSORB II trial, patients with restricted blood flow and lesions in the arteries of the heart who were given Absorb were less likely to have new or worsening angina (22 percent compared with 30 percent), but suffered more heart attacks (4 percent compared with 1 percent). With time and physician experience, those rates might drop. It takes doctors time to get used to techniques for implanting new devices and time to learn which patients are most likely to benefit. Better patient selection may lead to improved outcomes.

Get your vitamin D levels checked

Vitamin D insufficiency in older adults is highly correlated with accelerated cognitive decline and impaired performance, particularly in domains such as memory loss that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. At least that is the latest word from researchers with the University of California Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Rutgers University. They have found that independent of race or ethnicity, vitamin D insufficiency was associated with significantly faster declines in both episodic memory and executive function performance.

The researchers said these new findings coupled with other studies suggest that there is enough evidence to recommend that all adults in their 60s and older discuss taking a daily vitamin D supplement with their physicians. This may be especially true for adults living in Anchorage and elsewhere in Alaska.

The large, longitudinal study was conducted in nearly 400 racially and ethnically diverse men and women in Northern California participating in longitudinal research at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Sacramento. The average age of the particitpant was 76 and they were either cognitively normal, had mild cognitive impairment, or dementia.

Over five years of follow-up, vitamin D deficient individuals experienced cognitive declines that were two-to-three times faster than those with adequate serum vitamin D levels. In other words it took only two years for the deficient individuals to decline as much as their counterparts with adequate Vitamin D declined during the five-year follow-up period. Exposing the skin to sunlight is the major source of vitamin D and diet is the other major source of vitamin D.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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