Dark chocolate lovers and chocolate makers will likely celebrate the results of a small study that indicates dark chocolate could help those suffering from artery disease.

The study, as reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association this month, reveals those dealing with artery issues in their legs walk longer and farther if their diet includes dark chocolate.

That's because dark chocolate is rich in polyphenols, which can ease the impact of peripheral artery disease (PAD), states a report on the study results. The disease narrows the arteries to stomach, arms, legs and head and the reduced blood flow can bring on fatigue and cramping, as well as pain, when walking.

In the study, which involved 14 males and six females ages 60 to 78 years old, participants who ate dark chocolate increased their walking capability, an average of 11 percent farther and 15 percent longer.

The benefit of dark chocolate is "of potential relevance for the quality of life of these patients," said Lorenzo Loffredo, M.D., the study's co-author and assistant professor at the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy.

"Polyphenol-rich nutrients could represent a new therapeutic strategy to counteract cardiovascular complications," said, Francesco Violi, M.D., study senior author and professor of internal medicine at the Sapienza University of Rome.

Yet American Heart Association spokesperson Dr. Mark Creager said the results were very preliminary and that it is too early to recommend polyphenols or dark chocolate for cardiovascular health.

"Other investigations have shown that polyphenols including those in dark chocolate may improve blood vessel function. But this study is extremely preliminary and I think everyone needs to be cautious when interpreting the findings," said Creager, who is director of the Vascular Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

But at least one other doctor, not involved in the study, says the results are encouraging.

"Our body secretes chemicals that naturally dilate blood vessels in response to certain stimuli, improving the blood flow to certain areas," said Dr. Richard Chazal, vice president of the American College of Cardiology.

"Some of the chemicals inside dark chocolate could affect the way these enzymes are metabolized in the body," said Chazal, who was not involved inthe study.

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