POST 50
05/23/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

How Well You Can Put A Name With A Face Could Be An Indicator Of Brain Health, Study Says

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc via Getty Images

As you get older, you might find yourself worried that your so-called "senior moments" could be more than just forgetfulness. A misplaced set of keys here, a forgotten doctor's appointment there. But researchers say there is one thing that could be very telling when it comes to how well your brain is aging: how well you can put a name with a face.

Remember that time when you ran into someone you were sure you'd met before but it took a second to recall their name? That's an example of your relational memory -- the “ability to bind together various items of an event," according to study author Jim Monti of the University of Illinois. Monti and his co-author Neal Cohen wanted to develop a way of testing the difference between a normal aging brain versus one with mild Alzheimer's.

The study had participants look at a circle, divided into three parts, with a distinct design. After they had time to "memorize" the pattern, they were shown 10 more similar circles, one at a time, and asked to pick out the one that matched the original. They found that people with a mild case of Alzheimer's performed worse than those with healthy, aging brains, and that young adults performed better than both of the older groups.

One of the biggest challenges for people with advanced Alzheimer's is that they often have trouble recognizing people, even close friends and family. The authors say their findings could help design future studies to improve our understanding of the early effects of the disease. “That was illuminating and will serve to inform future work aimed at understanding and detecting the earliest cognitive manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease,” Monti said.

The findings are especially important as the number of Alzheimer's patients in the U.S. is expected to more than triple to 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The disease is typically diagnosed by a full medical evaluation, looking at brain imaging, memory tests, your ability to carry out daily tasks, and changes in behavior or personality, but researchers have tested various new methods in recent studies. Ohio State University researchers created a 15-minute at-home test with just 22 quick questions that was able to catch mild cognitive decline in four out of five test takers. Another study devised a peanut-butter smell test to literally sniff out the disease.

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