TIME Exercise/Fitness

Why Running May Really Be The Fountain of Youth

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Charriau Pierre—Getty Images

Elderly people who run show similar fitness to 20-year-olds

Older people who run several times a week actually expend the same amount of energy when they walk as a 20-year-old, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and Humboldt State University picked 30 healthy older volunteer adults around age 69 who either walked or ran regularly for exercise. The participants walked on a treadmill at the speeds 1.6 mph, 2.8 mph, and 3.9 mph while their oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production were measured.

People who were runners had similar energy intake to a group of young adults in their 20s from a prior study. However, those elderly men and women who regularly walked did not see that same benefit, and expended up to 22% more energy than the younger crowd.

That could be because runners have better muscle efficiency compared to walkers, or because more vigorous exercise may better train the body. But it doesn’t mean that walking doesn’t have its share of health perks. Walkers still experienced a lower risk for ailments like heart disease and depression.

The researchers say more studies should look at the link between exercise and the effects of age on the body. The authors write that it’s unknown whether there is “an intensity threshold of aerobic exercise that is needed to prevent the decline in walking economy.” But that knowledge could be useful in preventing some of the degenerative side effects of old age.

TIME movies

Blake Lively Stays Forever Young in the Trailer for Age of Adaline

“Adaline Bowman will henceforth be immune to the ravages of time.”

For all our fantasies about immortality and the millions we spend on anti-aging serums, Hollywood likes to keep reminding us of the pitfalls of never growing old. There’s the youth novel-cum-movie Tuck Everlasting, about the tribulations brought forth by a fountain of immortality. There are the persecuted immortal children of the Twilight series and the old friends of Cocoon who must decide whether to live forever on the planet Antarea. Now there’s Age of Adaline, an epic drama about a woman whose body is frozen in time as the world spins on without her.

Adaline Bowman, played by Blake Lively, leads a normal life from the time of her birth in 1908 until a car accident in 1935, during which some mysterious phenomenon renders her incapable of aging. She’s forced to change her identity as relationships become impossible to sustain and her children grow old without her (her daughter is played by the 81-year-old Ellen Burstyn).

Directed by Lee Toland Krieger (Celeste and Jesse Forever) and co-starring Harrison Ford and Amanda Crew, Age of Adaline hits theaters on April 24, 2015.

TIME Aging

Why Complex Jobs Protect Aging Brains Better

The more engaging your job, the sharper your thinking skills

Studies show that there are a lot of things you can do to preserve your intellect—stay social and interact with as many friends and family as you can, learn new things (especially languages), go to new places and stay physically active. If there’s any time left over, consider getting a more engaging career. There’s now evidence that what you do to make a living can also help to preserve your brain power.

Reporting in the journal Neurology, scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that the more complex a person’s job is, the more likely they are to score higher on memory tests and general cognitive skills when they reach age 70.

MORE: Cocoa May Help With Memory Loss, a New Study Finds

The team recruited about 1,000 69-year-olds who were part of the Lothian Birth Cohort, a database that included people born in the Scottish town in 1936. At age 11, the participants had taken IQ tests so the researchers could compare those scores to cognitive tests given to them at age 70.

In the study, researchers assessed their occupations by their complexity, based on how much interaction with people, data or things the job required. Complex “people” jobs, for example, include lawyer, social worker, surgeon or probation officer, compared to less socially complex jobs like factory worker, or painter. Complex “data” occupations include architect, graphic designer and musician, while less complex data jobs include construction worker, cafeteria worker or telephone operator. Finally, people working in more intricate ways with “things” would include machine workers and those who make instruments, while bank managers and surveyors might rank as having simpler interactions with things.

When the scientists compared occupations with cognitive tests at age 70, they found that people with more complex people and data jobs scored higher on memory, speed and general thinking skills than those with less involved jobs in these areas. People with more complex data-related jobs also scored much better on processing and speed skills.

MORE: 5 Secrets to Improve Learning and Memory

But when the researchers factored in the effect of the participants’ IQ at age 11—in other words, their starting intellect—they found that the influence of the jobs remained, though it shrunk a bit. “People who have higher cognitive ability to begin with are those more likely to have more complex jobs,” says Alan Gow, assistant professor of psychology at University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University and one of the study’s co-authors. “Once we account for that, the association between more complex jobs and better cognitive outcomes is reduced, but there remains a small additional benefit for our cognitive abilities from being in more complex jobs.”

In fact, he says, the strongest predictor of cognitive abilities at age 70 is intellect earlier in life. So the IQ of the participants at age 11 accounted for about 50% of the variance in test scores when they reached 70. Jobs can add to that effect. The stronger the cognitive starting point, the more brain reserve people might have as the normal processes of aging start erode some nerve connections involved in higher order thinking. Having a complex job that requires constant activation of these neural networks, and formation of new connections, can also contribute to building this reserve capacity.

Gow admits, however, that the study did not take into account how long people stuck with the jobs, so there may yet be a stronger effect of occupation on later life intellect the longer people stay with a complex job. Given the results, he and his team are eagerly following the 70-year olds to see if occupation and other factors can influence their cognitive functions. Now, they’re studying brain images of the volunteers to find changes in volume in certain thinking areas of the brain, as well as connections in the nerve network that’s responsible for higher order skills like processing, memory and reasoning.

MONEY housing

How to Cut Your Single Biggest Expense in Retirement

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An age-proof home is one where you can live safely, comfortably, and conveniently in your older years. Sian Kennedy—Getty Images

You're going to spend a lot on housing in retirement. Here's how to make sure your home serves your needs as you age.

The single biggest expense you face in retirement is housing, which accounts for more than 40% of spending for people 65 and older, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Yet all too often, you end up shelling out those bucks for places that don’t serve your needs well as you age.

By age 85, for example, two-thirds of people have some type of disability. If you can’t get around your house or community or you don’t have easy access to the medical and social services you need, you could land in a costly nursing home prematurely, according to a Harvard Center for Joint Housing and AARP study.

“People don’t think about how their home will support their needs until they face a health issue,” says Amy Levner, manager of the Livable Communities initiative at AARP. “It doesn’t have to be a catastrophe either. Even something as simple as a knee replacement could make it difficult to stay in your home or drive, at least short term.”

Here are 3 ways to make sure you’ll stay comfortable in your home as you get older.

1. Get your house in shape: Three-quarters of people would prefer to stay in their current home as long as possible in retirement, according to AARP. Yet just 20% live in a house with features to help them live safely and comfortably there in their older years. Among them: a first-floor bedroom and bath so you can live on the main level if stairs become hard to climb, wider doorways that make getting around easier if you need a walker or wheelchair, and covered entrances so you don’t slip in rain or snow.

Those can be pricey renovations, so the best time to do the work is while you are still employed so that you can use current income to pay the bill instead of tapping savings, says Levner. But many adaptations that make a big difference when you’re older are inexpensive. Those include raising electrical outlets to make them easier to reach, putting grab bars and a shower chair in the bathroom, and installing nonslip gripper mats under area rugs. (A list of the most important steps to take and their typical cost is below.)

2. Take it down a notch: To save money without necessarily moving far away—two-thirds of people want to remain in their hometown when they retire, AARP says—you can downsize to a less expensive, more manageable house. You could use the proceeds from the sale of your current home to add to your retirement savings, while significantly cutting maintenance costs.

The potential savings, based on estimates from the Center for Retirement Research, are compelling. If you move from a $250,000 house to a $150,000 one, for instance, you could net $75,000 to add to your savings, after paying moving and closing costs (typically 10% of the sale price). Meanwhile, your annual bill for upkeep would probably fall from around $8,125 to $4,875, assuming typical property taxes, insurance, and maintenance of about 3.25% of the home’s value. These calculations assume that you own your home outright; if you still have a mortgage, the savings you would reap from downsizing might be even bigger.

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Move in step with your peers: Relocating can also help you cut expenses if you move to an area with lower taxes and a cheaper cost of living. Look for places that have good public transit, transportation services for seniors, and walkable, bike-friendly neighborhoods that are a short distance to stores and entertainment and close to medical facilities.

Where should you go? AARP is now working with dozens of places to create age-friendly communities. They include Birmingham, Denver, Des Moines, and Westchester County in New York (find the list at aarp.org/agefriendly). Next spring AARP will launch an online index with livability data about every community in the U.S. For more inspiration, check out MONEY’s Best Places to Retire.

TIME Research

Racism Could Negatively Impact Your Health, Study Finds

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High blood pressure and kidney decline may be linked to feelings of discrimination

Feeling judged because of your race could have a negative impact on your physical health, a new study finds.

A team of researchers studied 1,574 residents of Baltimore as part of the Healthy Aging in Neighborhoods of Diversity across the Life Span study and found that 20% of the subjects reported feeling that they had been racially discriminated against “a lot.”

Even after the researchers adjusted the results for race, this group had higher systolic blood pressure than those who perceived only a little discrimination.

Over a five-year followup, the group who felt more racial discrimination also tended to have greater decline in kidney function. When the researchers, co-led by Deidra C. Crews, MD, assistant professor of medicine and chair of the diversity council at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, adjusted for age and lifestyle factors, the effect stayed constant for African-American women.

“Psychosocial stressors could potentially have an effect on kidney function decline through a number of hormonal pathways,” Dr. Crews said. The release of stress hormones can lead to an increase in blood pressure, and high blood pressure is one of the leading causes of kidney disease.

This isn’t the first time that perceived racial discrimination has been linked to chronic diseases: a 2011 study found that lifetime discrimination was linked to higher rates of hypertension.

MONEY

Here’s a New Reason to Think Twice Before Buying Long-term Care Insurance

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Tom Grill—Getty Images

You'll likely need some form of long-term care in retirement. Too bad long-term care insurance isn't the right choice for most people.

It’s one of the biggest risks in retirement, and it’s one that hardly anyone is ready to face: long-term care costs. Some 70% of those over 65 end up needing some form of long-term care, which is likely to be costly.

What to do? One commonly recommended option is to purchase long-term care insurance, which would reimburse you for the cost of getting help with daily activities, including in-home health aides and nursing home care. But these policies are pricey, and few people buy them—only 13% of those eligible do so, according to some estimates. It’s a problem that researchers call the long-term care insurance puzzle.

Turns out, it’s not really a puzzle. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, which found that long-term care insurance makes financial sense for far fewer people than originally thought—only about 20% of those eligible vs. earlier estimates of 30% to 40%. “Previous research has overstated the financial risks of going into nursing home care,” says study co-author Anthony Webb, senior research economist at the Center.

Make no mistake, long-term care is dangerously expensive. As a recent study by EBRI found, when you factor in long-term care costs, most lower-income households will run short of money in retirement, and even among middle-class and upper-income families, the odds of running short soar.

But the Center’s analysis, which focused on single individuals, found that the odds of requiring long, expensive stays in a nursing facility are lower than previously thought. By using longitudinal data, the Center found that individuals typically transition through different care stages—from living independently to needing some assistance to nursing home—and, often, back again. That brings down the odds of a long and costly stay in a facility, Webb says. (A typical nursing home costs $212 day or $77,000 a year, according to a recent survey.)

One factor not addressed by the study is that long-term care insurance is becoming a riskier purchase. After discovering that they had underestimated the likelihood that policyholders would file claims, many insurers have raised premiums or stopped selling this coverage altogether. Recently Genworth, one of the leading long-term care insurers, posted steep losses, and some analysts warned that its business outlook is dicey.

For most people it makes more sense to spend down their assets and rely on Medicaid rather than purchase long-term care insurance, the study found.”There’s a Medicaid crowd-out effect,” says Webb. (Many people mistakenly believe Medicare pays long-term care costs, but that program only covers short-term care.) Medicaid will pay for nursing home stays, as well as in-home care, for those with low incomes and few assets. Each state has its own eligibility rules. Most families end up spending down their assets before qualifying for Medicaid coverage.

Even if you never need a long nursing home stay, chances are you’ll need some form of in-home care, and that can be costly too—home health aides charge an average of $20 an hour. Most seniors end up relying on family for most of their at-home care.

What the Center’s study shows most clearly is that better options are needed. Studies have found that more people would be willing to purchase a supplemental policy that would transform Medicaid into a more comprehensive, means-tested insurance. Other experts are pushing for an expanded form of social insurance for long-term care. It’s unlikely, of course, that any major reforms are likely to happen soon.

Meanwhile, your best options is to plan ahead with your family about care—including living in a place that will make it easy to get around, receive services, and see friends. Living a healthy and happy life is one way to help reduce your chances of needing costly care in retirement.

Read next: Millions Fewer Americans Will Enroll in Obamacare Plans Than Predicted

TIME Aging

Here’s Where People Are Happiest Growing Old

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Getty Images

Happiness rises consistently from the mid-40s onward in the U.S.

Will you get happier as you grow older? That might depend on where you live, according to a new Lancet study.

On average, people in high-income English-speaking countries tend to maintain higher levels of wellbeing, but that experience isn’t consistent over time. As people in these countries age, life satisfaction tends to follow a U-shape. In their young days, people report being happy, but that feeling declines as they face increased responsibilities in their 20s and 30s. Finally, happiness rises consistently from the mid-40s onward.

Reported happiness trends look completely different in former Soviet countries, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Happiness remained consistently low in Sub-Saharan Africa. Happiness began high in Latin America and declined slightly before leveling off in people’s 40s. In Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, people see a precipitous decline in happiness as they age: it starts high, but dips consistently as they grow old.

“It’s not a great surprise that the elderly in those countries are doing really badly relative to the young people,” says study author Angus Deaton, a Princeton University professor. “The young people can do all sorts of things…whereas the old people have no future, and the system they believed in all their life is gone.”

The study also evaluated differences between regions in other metrics of wellbeing, like emotions and physical conditions. And there’s some good news for everyone: In most regions, people reported fewer emotional issues as they grew older.

“Many people have hypothesized that you just get emotionally more skilled when you get older,” says Deaton. “You make mistakes, and you learn.”

TIME Aging

Why Men Often Go Untreated For Osteoporosis

People often perceive the ailment as a "women's disease"

More than 2 million men suffer from osteoporosis, but health care workers and patients perceive the ailment as a disease that primarily affects women. A new study suggests that this perception may contribute to a widespread failure to test and treat men for osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones and increases the likelihood of fractures.

The study, published in The Journal Of Bone & Joint Surgery, evaluated the medical records of 344 women and 95 men over the age of 50 treated for fractures at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. More than half of women evaluated received an osteoporosis screening, while only 18% of men in the same position were screened. After treatment for bone injury, only 21% of men began calcium and vitamin D treatments to help prevent osteoporosis.

“It’s traditionally been thought of as a women’s disease, and all of the attention has been on women after menopause,” said lead study author Tamara Rozental, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. Rozental says that doctors and patients should both do more to raise awareness of the risk osteoporosis poses to men.

Evaluating data from only one hospital limits the scope of the study, but Rozental says they’re at the forefront of research and there aren’t yet large data sets to utilize.

The lack of screening carries increased risks for an aging population, Rozental adds: Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries among adults over 65, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A third of older adults falls each year, but most do not seek adequate treatment afterward.

TIME Aging

16 Unexpected Ways to Add Years to Your Life

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Getty Images

Try these surprising habits that could help you live longer

The average American’s life expectancy is 78.7 years. Whether you reach that age—or better yet, exceed it—largely depends on your genes, but there are also many keys to longevity that are totally within your control. Some you probably already know about, like following a nutritious diet, exercising often, staying away from cigarettes, and maintaining a healthy weight. Other habits are a little less obvious. Read on for some surprising habits and lifestyle choices that could add years to your life.

Adopt a furry friend

Your four-legged companion may be helping you live a longer life, according to a review published in the journal Circulation. Researchers believe owning a dog might keep the owner more active and, as a result, lowers the risk of heart disease.

“Dog owners are who walk their dogs are more likely to meet recommendations for daily physical activity (150 minutes weekly),” says Eric A. Goedereis, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Webster University in St. Louis, MO. Owning a pet also reduces stress, which may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, he adds.

HEALTH.COM: 12 Ways Pets Improve Your Health

Have more sex

A roll in the hay may be the most pleasant way to extend your life. Several studies suggest there is a link between more orgasms and longevity. In a 1997 study, men who had more orgasms were less likely to die of heart disease than those who had less. While the study can’t prove cause and effect (maybe healthier people are more likely to have sex), sex can be beneficial for health. “Of course sex feels good, but it also gives us the opportunity to work out nearly every muscle in the body and connect with another person,” says Goedereis. “Sex has also been shown to boost the body’s immune response, reduce stress, and even control one’s appetite, among other things.” Two to three orgasms a week yields best benefits. Doctor’s orders.

HEALTH.COM:
13 Healthy Reasons to Have More Sex

Floss every day

Daily flossing not only gets rid of food trapped between your teeth but also removes the film of bacteria that forms before it has a chance to harden into plaque—something your toothbrush cannot do. Periodontal disease from lack of flossing can trigger low-grade inflammation, which increases the risk of early heart attack and stroke. Numerous studies link oral bacteria to cardiovascular disease. The American Dental Association recommends flossing at least once a day.

Have a positive attitude

Think being mean and ornery is what it takes to live to 100? That’s what scientists at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, New York thought until they studied 243 centenarians. When the researchers assessed their personalities, they discovered that most had a positive outlook on life, and were generally easygoing, optimistic, and full of laughter.

If nothing else, try to laugh more often—go to comedy shows, take occasional breaks at work to watch silly videos on YouTube, or spend time with people who make you smile. “Laughter helps decrease blood pressure, reduce blood sugars, dull pain, and lower stress, all of which can make your body healthier,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, psychologist and author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.

Be social

Going to the movies or out for coffee with friends may help all of you grow old together. An analysis by Brigham Young University looked at data from 148 studies and found a clear connection between social ties and lifespan. “People with stronger social relationships have a 50% greater chance of continued living as compared to those with weaker relationships,” says Lombardo. “Loneliness can also compromise your immune system, making it harder to fight off disease.”

HEALTH.COM: 12 Worst Habits for Your Mental Health

Go nuts

Snack on cashews, sprinkle chopped walnuts on your salad, stir almonds into your yogurt—however you eat them, it may be helpful. People who ate nuts several times a week had a reduced mortality risk compared with those who ate nuts less frequently (or at all), according to a 2013 New England Journal of Medicine study.

Nuts are high in antioxidants, fiber, and unsaturated fatty acids, and they help lower your risk of heart disease. “They are known to possibly improve certain risk factors for diabetes as well,” says Keri Gans, RD, a New York-based nutrition consultant. As a healthy but high-calorie snack, limit portion sizes to 1 ounce, or about 20 nuts.

Find your purpose

Regardless of your age, finding purpose in life may help you live long enough to make a difference. In a study of 6,000 people, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York found that people who had a greater sense of purpose were less likely to die during the 14-year study than those who were less focused on a goal. “People who have a sense of purpose in their lives may be more likely to take steps to be healthier,” says Lombardo. To develop a sense of purpose, focus on the positive impact you are making at work or at home instead of getting caught up with every little detail being perfect, she suggests.

Start your mornings with coffee

Sipping a mug of coffee not only jumpstarts your day, but your longevity as well. Studies show coffee reduces the risk of a number of chronic diseases. “Drinking coffee may decrease your risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Gans. Just go easy: too much caffeine can trigger anxiety and insomnia, or interfere with calcium absorption. And hold the whipped toppings like syrups and cream to avoid canceling out the health benefits.

Snooze soundly

Quality of sleep also plays in role in how long you may live. Multiple studies have linked sleep deprivation with an increased risk of death, and other research has shown that a lack of shuteye may raise risk of type 2 diabetes. “Some people may need more or less sleep than others, but research suggests that seven hours is probably enough,” says Goedereis. To sleep soundly, establish a nighttime routine and stick to a schedule, even on weekends.

See the glass as half full

An Illinois study found clear evidence that happy people experience better health and live longer than their unhappy peers. “Depression, pessimism, and stress predict shorter lifespans,” says Lombardo. “These mental states tend to cause a stress reaction within the body, which can weaken the immune system. Happiness, on the other hand, tends to result in less stress hormones.” Take time to experience gratitude every day. “It’s one of the quickest and longest-lasting ways to boost happiness,” she adds.

Ditch soda

Even if you’re not overweight, drinking soda may be shortening your lifespan, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. The five-year study found a link between soda intake and shortening of the telomeres, which are caps on the ends of chromosomes directly linked to aging. Telomeres shorten each time a cell divides and are thought to be an aging “clock.” This study did not find the same link with diet soda, but other research has associated heavy diet soda drinking to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and depression—all potential life-shorteners.

HEALTH.COM: 10 Reasons to Give Up Diet Soda

Have a little bit of wine every day

Drinking a little less than one glass of wine a day is linked to a lower rate of cardiovascular death from all causes when compared to abstaining from all alcohol, according to a Dutch study. Researchers found that light alcohol consumption resulted in longer life expectancy at age 50. Drinking less than or equal to 20 grams per day of alcohol (that’s a little less than a serving of beer, wine, or spirits) was associated with a 36% lower risk of all causes of death and a 34% lower risk of cardiovascular death. And sorry, beer and cocktail fans: the same results were not found with light-to-moderate alcohol intake of other types.

Run 5 minutes a day

No need to run for an hour a day to reap the life-lengthening benefits. A new study shows running just 5 to 10 minutes a day increases your life expectancy by reducing the risk of death from heart disease by 58% and dropping the overall risk of death by 28%. It holds true even if you’re a slowpoke. Those who ran at less than 6 miles per hour only once or twice a week experienced clear benefits, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Researchers credit better lung and heart function with the extended lifespan. Consistency works best, however: Exercisers who ran regularly for an average of six years reaped the greatest benefits.

Eat lots of fish

A diet heavy in omega-3-rich foods may add years to your life, says a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine. In the study of more than 2,600 adults, those with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids—found in salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, and lake trout—lived more than two years longer on average than those with lower blood levels. The study didn’t prove that being a fish-eater increases longevity, but suggests a connection. Researchers found that people with high omega-3 levels reduced their overall risk of death by any cause by up to 27% compared to those with the lowest levels, and that they had a 35% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Experts recommend at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish a week.

Stop sitting so much

Simply stand up more during the day and you’ll boost your longevity by increasing the length of your telomeres, according to a study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The study measured the effects of sitting time and physical activity among 49 sedentary, overweight participants. Researchers found increased telomere length—end caps of chromosomes that link directly to longevity—in the red blood cells of individuals participating in a 6-month physical activity intervention.

Volunteer

Helping others not only feels good, it may help you live longer, too. A review of data from 40 published papers found a 20% lower risk of death than non-volunteers. The findings, published in the journal BMC Public Health, found that those who volunteered experienced lower levels of depression, better life satisfaction, and overall enhanced wellbeing. Another study found that retirees who volunteered at least 200 hours in the prior year were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers, lowering their risk of heart disease. Lend a hand for a win-win result.

This article originally appeared on Health.com

TIME Research

Cocoa May Help With Memory Loss, a New Study Finds

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But don't break out the chocolate bars just yet

It’s everybody’s favorite kind of health discovery: something delicious and seemingly sinful — red wine, chocolate, coffee — turns out to be good for you, according to new research.

The latest installment in this brand of happy news comes from a study out of Columbia University that finds that flavanols, a component of cocoa (a principle ingredient in chocolate) can actually reverse at least one aspect of memory loss associated with normal aging.

The small but intriguing study involved 37 healthy individuals, ages 50 to 69. Half were asked to consume a drink loaded with 450 mg of cocoa flavanols twice a day for three months. The other half got just 10 mg daily—about a quarter the amount in one candy bar.

Both groups were evaluated with a memory test and brain scans at the start of the study, and after three months of downing their respective potions. Researchers — led by Scott Small, professor of neurology at Columbia’s Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, and his colleagues, Adam Brickman and Richard Sloan—found that the high-flavanol group showed a remarkably improved performance on a test of visual memory: the equivalent of a 60-year-old performing like a 30-year-old.

The test involves looking at a series of abstract shapes and determining whether the pattern of squiggly lines is the same as or different than one presented earlier. In this study, Dr. Small and his colleagues show that the ability to quickly perform this task declines at a predictable rate with advancing age.

“This test reflects the kind of complaints I hear from relatively healthy older individuals who say, ‘If I met someone new today, I’m not sure I would recognize them on the street tomorrow,’” Small explains. It tests the ability to form new memories as opposed to summoning up old information (which can be another issue for older adults).

Study participants were also examined in a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) scanner. Small and his colleagues zeroed in on a structure called the dentate gyrus, located in the hippocampus, a brain region that plays a major role in memory. Previous research in both mice and humans has shown that decreased activity in the dentate gyrus is associated with the typical decline in memory seen as people age. (This is not, however, the spot in the hippocampal region where Alzheimer’s disease first strikes.)

As it turned out, the fMRI studies lined up neatly with the memory test results. People in the high-flavanol group showed much greater blood volume in the dentate gyrus — a measure of brain connectivity and processing ability. It, too, was on the order of gaining decades of function.

“I think it provides proof of principle that diet could potentially reverse an aging process,” says Small, who is working on a larger follow-up study.

Precisely what biological magic the cocoa components are working is not entirely clear, but recent research provides some clues. Studies have shown that cocoa flavanols help keep blood vessels supple as opposed to hardening over time. It could be that they perform this function in the brain. Flavanols also have anti-inflammatory effects that might be part of the explanation.

A number of small studies have linked the nutrients to lower risks of heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes. These studies are sufficiently compelling that the National Institutes of Health is co-funding a massive study of cocoa flavanols — involving 18,000 men and women — that will kick off in early 2015.

“The cocoa flavanols are very promising and exciting in terms of their potential role for preventing heart disease, stroke and other vascular outcomes,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who will be co-directing the study with her colleague Howard Sesso.

The five-year study, tagged with the acronym COSMOS (for Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamins Outcomes Study),will primarily focus on cardiovascular disease, but Manson is seeking funding for additional arms that will provide extremely detailed data on how the nutrients impact memory and cognition, as well as other health problems. The Columbia study, she says, strengthens the case for further investigation of the effects on memory and cognitive decline.

Among the funders of both COSMOS and the Columbia research is Mars Inc., the world’s biggest candymaker. It already has a cocoa-flavanol supplement called CocoaVia on the market, and will be well positioned to sell other products to the public should the virtues of flavanols be confirmed by new studies.

Don’t want to wait until the 2020s for the final word on flavanols from COSMOS? Don’t just go out and load up on chocolate bars, warns Small. Many types of flavanols are eliminated by chocolate-manufacturing processes. And, besides, you’d need about 25 bars a day to get anything close to the level of flavanols used in his study.

“I’m a physician, and that’s not what I’m recommending,” he says.

Read next: 12 Unexpected Things That Mess With Your Memory

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