A simple test of how well people remember animal names could provide an early warning of Alzheimer’s disease, it has been claimed.

Research on a group of people in the first stages of Alzheimer’s showed that their memory worked in a distinct way.

Given a minute to write down as many names of animals as they could remember, they only did half as well as healthy individuals.

A similar result emerged when the volunteers were asked to remember names of fruit.

More importantly, people with early Alzheimer’s remembered certain kinds of names much more easily than others.

Their memory retained familiar names and those learned early in pre-school childhood. They were more likely to list “dog” and “apple” than “giraffe” and “nectarine”.

Looking at these patterns could indicate early signs of a problem, said Professor Andy Ellis, from the University of York.

“People in their 70s may have difficulties anyway,” he said. “It’s possible that exploring the qualities and characteristics of the words still available to them may be one of the ways of detecting something going wrong.

“If you can detect something going wrong there’s evidence that the drugs that have an effect in Alzheimer’s disease work best if administered early in the course of the disease.” Prof Ellis described the research at the BA Festival of Science taking place at Trinity College, Dublin.

A total of 96 patients with early Alzheimer’s whose condition had been identified by brain scans took part in the study, along with 40 healthy “controls”. The average age of the participants was 77. The youngest were in their mid-60s and the eldest in their 80s.

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