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Inability to recognize famous faces could be sign of early dementia

August 16, 2013

Being able to recognize the faces of celebrities and other historical figures may be indicative of more than just a keen eye for pop culture. Researchers at Northwestern University recently discovered that the inability to identify famous faces may be tied to an increased risk for developing an early form of dementia, according to findings published recently in the journal Neurology.

The study followed a group of 30 people with primary progressive aphasia, a type of dementia, as well as a group of 27 healthy individuals. Subjects were shown black and white photos of famous people including Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana and Martin Luther King Jr. Participants got points for each correct answer, and partial credit if they only answered a portion of the question correctly. The participants, who had an average age of 62, also underwent an MRI.

Researchers found the group with primary progressive aphasia got only about 80 percent of the names correct, while the other participants recognized 97 percent of the faces. Experts say the findings could help doctors develop new ways to uncover how dementia is affecting the brain.

"This simple test can be used by doctors in their evaluation of patients to figure out what areas of thinking may be compromised," senior author Emily Rogalski told USA Today. 

The findings are just the latest to further the senior care community's understanding of dementia. Most recently, experts from the University of Washington found evidence that high blood sugar is tied to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, regardless of whether a person has diabetes. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, offers another modifiable risk factor for the disease, which affects more than 5 million Americans.