Getting your chocolate fix may actually help fix aging blood vessels, according to a new study.

Researchers found adults who drank a specially processed cocoa beverage rich in flavonols for four to six days improved their blood vessel function, and older adults appeared to benefit the most.

“Aging is typically associated with deterioration in vessel health, specifically related to function of the critical inner lining, or endothelium,” says researcher Naomi Fisher, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a news release. “Our findings demonstrate that consumption of this flavonol-rich cocoa can improve the function of blood vessels in a healthy elderly population.”

Flavonols are a class of antioxidants found in plant-based foods and beverages -- such as cocoa, wine, and tea -- which have been increasingly linked to heart benefits.

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In the study, published in the Journal of Hypertension, researchers had 15 healthy adults under age 50 and 19 healthy adults over 50 drink a specially made flavonol-rich cocoa every day for four to six days.

The cocoa beverage was made with Mars Cocoapro, which is a process that helps retain the flavonols naturally found in cocoa beans. Mars Inc. provided the cocoa beverage and also provided partial funding for the study.

Before and after the study, researchers measured the participants’ blood vessel function.

The results showed blood vessel function improved among both younger and older adults after the cocoa phase. But these improvements were more pronounced in the older group.

Researchers say the findings agree with previous studies that suggest flavonols found in cocoa appear to benefit blood vessel function by influencing the body’s production of nitric oxide, which helps regulate blood vessel tone.

But before you reach for that chocolate bar, experts say the flavonol-rich cocoa products used in these studies should not be confused with commercially available snacks that contain many calories but are low in natural cocoa and flavonols.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Fisher, N. Journal of Hypertension. August 2006; vol 24: pp 1575-1580. News release, Mars Incorporated.