Study Says Chocolate Lowers AFib Risk. Sort of.

How AFib leads to stroke.

A new study on the potential link between chocolate and heart health is getting a lot of attention from the media but the way it is being covered is also drawing caution flags from medical experts. To hear the media tell it, this new study promises that sneaking in a bit of chocolate several times a week could lower the risk of developing a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation, or AFib, by as much as 20%.

Study links chocolate to lower risk of AFib.
Table from the chocolate for AFib study provided by the authors.

The study was really just an analysis of a patient database from Denmark. That study, known as the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study, holds medical information and surveys from more than 55,500 people ages 50 to 64. What the researchers of the chocolate study did was to comb through that data, looking for cases of afib.

What they ultimately found was 3346 case of atrial fibrillation. Then they looked at the patients’ self-reported consumption of any kind of chocolate. The scientists say that the people who ate chocolate regularly were less likely to have been diagnosed with AFib than study participants who rarely or never indulged.

People who reported averaging 2 to 6 servings of chocolate per week saw the most protection, with a 20% lower risk, say study authors, while those who ate chocolate every day and those who reported at least a serving per week came in at 16% and 17%. People eating as little as 1 to 3 servings a month saw a 10% reduction.

Problems With The Chocolate & AFib Study

This is certainly not the first scientific study to find a link between the consumption of cocoa and better heart health but this was one of the first too look specifically at the prevention of AFib, which an estimated 25% of us will develop in our lifetimes.

But the study also has significant limitations, as an editorial in Heart, where the study was first published, points out. First, when you look more closely at the data, it turns out that the chocolate eaters were just healthier to start with. Fewer of them were hypertensive or diabetic, for example, and they tended to have lower blood pressure.

The chocolate lovers also tended to be better educated, which is a suspected factor in numerous health issues. And there was limited or no adjustment made for factors like exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices.

The editorial also points out a fact that most new reports on the study have ignored–that European chocolate is typically higher in cocoa than a lot of American chocolate. (It is cocoa, after all, that is thought to be the beneficial ingredient.)

So Is The Chocolate For AFib Study Debunked?

For all its problems, the study does support a growing body of evidence that suggests a link between chocolate consumption and heart health. Perhaps future studies will strengthen that evidence.

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