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Omnivore - Chocolate really does beat Xanax

A nursing home subs comfort food for medicine

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Speaking of psychology and chocolate, as I did in last Friday's post about the Sugar-coated Radical, the Dec. 31 New York Times brought up the same subject in an article about treatment of Alzheimer's patients at a Phoenix nursing home:

Margaret Nance was, to put it mildly, a difficult case. Agitated, combative, often reluctant to eat, she would hit staff members and fellow residents at nursing homes, several of which kicked her out. But when Beatitudes nursing home agreed to an urgent plea to accept her, all that changed.

Disregarding typical nursing-home rules, Beatitudes allowed Ms. Nance, 96 and afflicted with Alzheimer’s, to sleep, be bathed and dine whenever she wanted, even at 2 a.m. She could eat anything, too, no matter how unhealthy, including unlimited chocolate....

Once, director of research Ms. Alonzo said: “The state tried to cite us for having chocolate on the nursing chart. They were like, ‘It’s not a medication.’ Yes, it is. It’s better than Xanax.”

Later in the article, Alonzo goes on:

Realizing that nutritious, low-salt, low-fat, doctor-recommended foods might actually discourage people from eating, Ms. Alonzo began carrying chocolate in her pocket. “For God’s sake,” Ms. Mullan said, “if you like bacon, you can have bacon here.”

Comforting food improves behavior and mood because it “sends messages they can still understand: ‘it feels good, therefore I must be in a place where I’m loved,’ ” Ms. Dougherty said.

Now, when Maribeth Gallagher, Beatitudes’ dementia program director, learns someone’s favorite foods, “I’m going to pop that on your tongue, and you’re going to go ‘yum,’ ” she said. “Isn’t that better than an injection?”

I think Ms. Dougherty's explanation for the calming effect of chocolate is probably accurate. The story's author, Pam Belluck, notes that recent research "suggests that emotion persists after cognition deteriorates." If that's so, a symbol long associated with pleasure, like chocolate or any other comfort food, could elicit positive, calming feelings (as a baby doll also does for one patient). The research also observed that these feeling states persisted well after the initial exposure to the stimulus.

I observed something of the same phenomenon when I handed my mother a large box of Godiva chocolate — the best available when I was a kid — toward the end of her life in an assisted living center. She was thrilled — much more so than when I brought her a much better quality chocolate whose brand was not known to her.