08/12/2013 04:03 pm ET

Dementia Symptoms: Famous Faces Help Spot Cognitive Troubles


Trouble recalling names is a common sign of old age. And now a new study suggests that simple tests measuring one's ability to recognize and name famous people such as Albert Einstein or Oprah Winfrey may help doctors identify early dementia in those 40 to 65 years old.

“These tests also differentiate between recognizing a face and actually naming it, which can help identify the specific type of cognitive impairment a person has,” said study author Tamar Gefen, a doctoral candidate in neuropsychology at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center of Northwestern University.

Gefen told Huff/Post50 that, although several tests have assessed knowledge of famous faces in the past, many have included stimuli unfamiliar to younger people (some even age 40) seeking neurologic assessment or treatment for early dementia.

"This test includes images of faces [like Oprah] that are appropriate for a younger generation," she said.

Gefen also said that if anyone has difficulty identifying a famous person, or even a close loved one, they should seek a formal evaluation from a neurologist.

For the study, 30 individuals with primary progressive aphasia -- a type of early onset dementia that mainly affects language -- and 27 people without dementia were given a test. The test included 20 famous faces printed in black and white, including John F. Kennedy, Lucille Ball, Princess Diana, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oprah Winfrey and Elvis Presley.

Participants, whose average age was 62, were given points for each face they could name. If the subject could not name the face, he or she was asked to identify the famous person by describing them. Participants gained more points by providing at least two key details about the person. The two groups also underwent MRI brain scans.

Researchers found that the people who had early onset dementia performed significantly worse on the test, scoring an average of 79 percent in recognition of famous faces and 46 percent in naming the faces, compared to 97 percent in recognition and 93 percent on naming for those without dementia.

The study also found that people who had trouble putting names to the faces were more likely to have a loss of brain tissue in the left temporal lobe of the brain, while those with trouble recognizing the faces had tissue loss on both sides of the temporal lobe.

“In addition to its practical value in helping us identify people with early dementia, this test also may help us understand how the brain works to remember and retrieve its knowledge of words and objects,” Gefen said.

The study, which appears this week in Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, was supported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institute on Aging, the National Center for Research Resources and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

To learn more about dementia, click here.