Drinking hot chocolate can help people over 60 after a study has shown that cocoa increases blood circulation in the legs.
Those who drank a mug of cocoa three times a day for six months were able to walk considerably further in a walk test at the end of the study.
Cocoa is abundant in a substance called epicatechin, also found in dark chocolate.
Researchers think the epicatechin is that the blood supply to the calves of the participants can improve, allowing them to cover the extra distance.
The study was performed on people with the common peripheral vascular disease or “PAD”, which is a narrowing of the arteries.
A fifth of the over-60s in the UK have some degree of PAD, which causes pain, tightness and leg cramps while walking.
Drinking hot chocolate can help people over 60 after a study suggests that cocoa increases blood circulation in the legs, research shows
In response to the findings, study author Professor Mary McDermott of Northwestern University in Chicago, USA said, “There are few therapies available to improve walking performance in people with PAD.”
Dr. Naomi Hamburg, chairman of the American Heart Association’s Council for Peripheral Vascular Diseases, added: “Patients with PAD are difficult to walk, just as bad as those with advanced heart failure.
“Leg muscles do not get enough blood in PAD which leads to injury and in this study, cocoa seemed to protect the muscle and improve the metabolism.
“We know that exercise therapy helps people with PAD to continue walking, and this early study suggests that cocoa may prove to be a new way to treat people with PAD.
“We need larger studies to confirm whether cocoa is an effective treatment for PAD, but maybe one day, if the research supports this, we might be able to write a recipe for chocolate for our patients with PAD.”
The study involved 44 PAD patients older than 60 years.
Study participants were randomly assigned to drink a mug of cocoa or a placebo powder package without cocoa three times a day for six months.
The cocoa was unsweetened and contained 15 grams of cocoa and 75 mg of epicatechin.
The walking performance was measured at the start of the study and after six months. The participants walked up and down a corridor for six minutes.
The test was done twice, after two and a half hours and 24 hours after drinking the drink. They also did a treadmill test.
The participants also measured blood flow to their legs using an MRI scan, and those who agreed had a calf muscle biopsy to evaluate muscle health.
The cocoa drinkers were able to walk up to 42.6 meters in the last six-minute walking test completed at the end of the six-month study.
But patients who drank the placebo drink had a 24.2 meter decline at the end of the six-month period.
The authors said that cocoa flavanols, including epicatechin, present in dark chocolate, “have therapeutic properties that can improve walking performance in people with PAD.”
The finding was consistent with other studies in which PAD patients experience a deterioration of their walking distance over time if they remain untreated.
The team also discovered other improvements to muscle health – boosts were observed in both mitochondrial activity, which helps cells convert energy from food, and capillary density, a vital factor in supplying oxygen to tissues during exercise.
Professor McDermott said: ‘If our results are confirmed in a larger study, these findings suggest that cocoa, a relatively inexpensive, safe and accessible product, could potentially lead to significant improvements in calf muscle health, blood flow and walking performance for PAD patients. “
The researchers emphasized that normal chocolate – often loaded with sugar – is not expected to have the same effect as the cocoa they used, which is commonly available.
The study was published today in the American Heart Association journal Circulation Research.
What is peripheral arterial disease?
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a condition in which the arteries in the legs narrow and restrict blood flow.
The condition is usually caused by an accumulation of fat deposits such as cholesterol on the inner wall of the blood vessels.
Purchased from the diet, these fats stick to the wall of the artery and shrink the space through which blood can travel, raise blood pressure, reduce oxygen flow and make it more likely that someone will develop gangrene or have a heart attack or stroke.
Around 200 million people worldwide have PAD and it is most prevalent among the elderly, with one in five over 60 in the UK.
Symptoms develop slowly and some people do not notice them, but the most important is painful leg pain that may disappear while resting.
Leg pain is not necessarily a normal sign or aging and people should consult a doctor if theirs keeps coming back.
Others can be:
- Numbness or weakness in the legs
- Hair loss on the legs and feet
- Brittle, slow-growing toenails
- Ulcers (open sores) on your feet and legs that do not heal
- Changing skin color on your legs, such as turning pale or blue
- Glossy skin
- Erectile dysfunction
PAD is more common in patients who smoke or have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
The condition is treated with drugs such as statins and lifestyle changes such as weight loss, smoking cessation, more exercise and healthy eating.