Cocoa improves memory, restores blood flow to the brain

Like the rest of your body, your brain is thirsty for blood -- and when it doesn't get what it needs, it starts to slip. That sets the stage for memory loss and even dementia.

But there's one way you might be able to restore some of that blood flow that you wouldn't expect, and that's with a little chocolate.

Yes, chocolate!

In a new study on the health benefits of chocolate, 60 seniors were given one of two types of chocolate drinks and told to have two cups a day -- and no other chocolate -- for a month.

One group got a cocoa drink rich in the flavanols that are believed to hold the key to at least some of the health benefits of chocolate, while the other got a cocoa drink with lower levels of those flavanols.

In seniors with healthy brains, the drink didn't make much of a difference.

But a third of the seniors in the study were suffering from reduced blood flow to the brain -- and for them, the chocolate drinks make a world of difference, boosting the flow of blood to the brain by 8.3 percent and improving their memory at the same time.

This wasn't a minor improvement, either. At the start of the study, it took them an average of 167 seconds to complete a memory test.

But after a month of chocolate, they needed just 116 seconds -- an improvement of nearly a third.

If that's not enough of a reason to feel a little less guilty when you indulge in this guilty pleasure, the health benefits of chocolate may also protect the heart, lower your blood pressure, reduce insulin sensitivity and even lower your risk of diabetes.

You'll find big benefits in both milk chocolate and dark chocolate -- but darker chocolates are a bit better since they contain more antioxidants and less sugar.

But the real issue isn't choosing between dark chocolate and milk chocolate. It's in setting limits -- because many people overdo it when it comes to this sweet treat.

Personally, I think the two cups of hot chocolate a day in the study is probably a little much -- and hot chocolate contains more than a few extra ingredients you don't want.

If you want maximum health benefits of chocolate with minimum junk, stick to a square or two of a quality chocolate each day.