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Seen At 11: Cocoa Could Help Reverse Memory Loss By Decades

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork)-- Call them delicious discoveries: the idea that some seemingly sinful foods, like red wine and coffee, are actually good for us.

New research shows a component of cocoa may actually help reverse memory loss associated with aging by decades. CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez explored the connection between cocoa and the brain.

Sixty-two year old Rachel Yarmolinsky was so concerned about her fading memory that she went back to school to try to stimulate her brain.

"When I was younger, I did have a photographic memory," she said. "I know exactly what I mean, who I mean and I can't say the name -- it's very frustrating."

Dr. Scott Small of Columbia University said it occurs in all of us starting at the age of 30.

That's right, at the tender age of just 30 we start the initial slide into frustrating and inevitable forgetfulness.

"Some people call it a cognitive epidemic as more and more of us are living longer," Small said.

Small is a professor of neurology of Columbia University Medical Center and said there may actually be a simple and effective cure for this cognitive aging.

"Cocoa flavanols," he said.

Flavanols are antioxidants found in raw, unprocessed cocoa beans that studies show improve memory in mice. Small and his team decided to put that finding to the test in humans using special drinks created by the chocolate company Mars. The result?

"We actually showed a reversal in memory loss in older individuals, which was remarkable to us," he said.

Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, said what's even more remarkable is how much the flavanols turned back the "cognitive clock."

"Participants improved several decades worth," Sloan said.

The study looked at 40 healthy adults ages 50 to 75 over the course of 12 weeks. Not only did participants report a boost in memory, but neuro-imaging actually showed improvements in the part of the brain that correlates with memory.

"Yes, it was pretty amazing and yes, we're all excited," Sloan said.

But as encouraged as the researchers are, there are still a number of unanswered questions like how long results will last and can flavanols also improve the memory of those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease?

"My mother did have dementia," Yarmolinsky said.

Rachel is now participating in a larger, more stringent clinical trial also being conducted by Columbia University to hopefully get to the bottom of this tantalizing connection between cocoa and the brain.

"That's a question that remains outstanding," Small said.

Now before you reach for a candy bar, the cocoa doctors are talking about has been specially processed to extract highly concentrated flavanols and is not quite as tasty.

You can buy it in powder form which you can mix in your coffee. Or you take it in a capsule.

If you are between the ages of 50 and 75 in interested in volunteering for the clinical trial, please visit the Columbia University Medical Center website or call (646) 774-8952.

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