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Ability to recognize famous faces could be clue to early onset dementia

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Celebrities and iconic figures such as John F. Kennedy and Oprah may have more in common than just international fame. Their images can also help people suffering from dementia.

Now, a new study published in the journal Neurology has revealed that a person’s ability to remember famous faces can serve as an early detection method for dementia and other age-related memory disorders, Medical Daily reported.

"These tests differentiate between recognizing a face and actually naming it, which can help identify the specific type of cognitive impairment a person has," study author Tamar Gefen, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told Medical Daily.

Gefen and her team created a simple test that involved asking patients to identify 20 images of famous figures printed in black and white.  The photos included a range of mainstream icons from the past 50 years, including JFK, Lizza Minelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Oprah.

The researchers recruited 30 people with an average age of 62 who had primary progressive aphasia (PPA), an early-onset neurological disorder that impairs language and memory.  While the condition is typically seen in elderly individuals, PPA can also affect people in their mid-40s.

According to Medical Daily, the participants received one point for remembering part of a person’s name, and two points for remembering the entire name.

Those with PPA scored an average of 49 percent for naming faces, compared to a control group that had an average score of 93 percent.  The participants also underwent follow-up functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which showed distinct patterns between what patients could remember and certain areas of the brain that had lost tissue.

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