Winter 2019

More Good News About Cocoa

Consuming a flavonoid in cocoa helped healthy mice delay aging.

By Dominique Ameroso

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Photo: Shutterstock

As if you needed another reason to enjoy cocoa products, a recent study by Tufts researchers found that epicatechin—a flavonoid found in cocoa, green tea, and certain fruits and beans—has antiaging effects in healthy mice.

The research on epicatechin, published in the FASEB Journal, was conducted by Chao-Qiang Lai, a molecular biologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service who is based at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, and Hongwei Si, an associate professor at Tennessee State University. Scientists think epicatechin may be the reason people living on an island off the coast of Panama, who consume beverages made from cocoa beans, have better health and longer life spans compared to those on the mainland.

Si previously published a study that showed epicatechin increased the survival rate of obese, diabetic mice. To see if it would do the same for healthy individuals, the researchers gave epicatechin to old but otherwise healthy mice. The epicatechin-treated mice lived significantly longer than untreated mice. They were also more active and had fewer age-related health issues.

+37 Weeks

Number of additional weeks 69% of mice supplemented with epicatechin lived, compared to 39% of untreated mice

In addition, the mice that received epicatechin showed less degeneration in skeletal muscle than the control group. This is especially notable because progressive loss of muscle tissue and function, known as sarcopenia, occurs naturally during the aging process, and in people can lead to a decline in general health and quality of life. In fact, the muscle tissue from old mice that received epicatechin looked just like muscle from young, healthy controls. “This is a stunning effect,” Si said.

Genes function as instructions so cells in your body know what proteins to make. To determine what biological changes were behind the beneficial effects of epicatechin, Lai and Si looked at a subset of proteins within muscles, as well as metabolites within blood, that are both known to decrease with age. Surprisingly, they found that epicatechin treatment caused protein levels of old mice to resemble that of young mice, and metabolites were protected and expressed at levels comparable to young mice, possibly
leading to the improved health outcomes.

Lai and fellow researchers hope to follow up this work with human studies, to see if epicatechin can be a helpful tool in preventing sarcopenia and age-related disease in people.

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