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What is frontotemporal dementia? Wendy Williams' diagnosis, explained

Wendy Williams reveals dementia diagnosis
Wendy Williams reveals dementia diagnosis: A glimpse into her future 03:55

Wendy Williams has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, which is used to describe a group of brain disorders that affect the brain's frontal and temporal lobes. These parts of the brain are associated with personality, behavior and language.

The talk show host was also diagnosed with progressive aphasia. Aphasia and FTD are the same conditions actor Bruce Willis was diagnosed with in recent years.

Williams, who is 59, had taken a leave from her show in 2021 while she dealt with health issues, and in 2023, after undergoing "a battery of medical tests," she was diagnosed with the conditions, which effect language, communication behavior and function, according to a news release.

Williams had been open to the public about her Graves' Disease and lymphedema diagnoses. She initially took an indefinite leave from her long-running talk show, "Wendy," which premiered in 2008. In 2022 it was announced that Sherri Shepherd would talk over the show as host.

Here's what to know:

Frontotemporal dementia symptoms

"Some people with frontotemporal dementia have dramatic changes in their personalities and become socially inappropriate, impulsive or emotionally indifferent, while others lose the ability to use language properly," the Mayo Clinic says.

It can be hard to diagnose. 

"Oftentimes patients can just present with behavioral problems, their personality can change. But as opposed to something like Alzheimer's, there's no clear test to definitively make the diagnosis," Dr. Gayatri Devi, a clinical professor of neurology at Northwell Health who specializes in dementia, explained on "CBS Mornings."

After Bruce Willis' diagnosis in 2023,  Dr. David Agus described FTD as a "progressive disorder," meaning Willis' function will worsen and will require "a lot of care."

"He won't be able to do many of the activities we all do in life," Agus said.

What causes frontotemporal dementia?

"Frontotemporal dementia is when you have loss of nerve cells in the brain that causes cognitive issues — much like other types of dementias including Alzheimer's [or] Lewy body, frontotemporal is a type of dementia," Devi said.

There is no specific treatment for FTD, but Devi said doctors can "treat the behavioral problems that often go along with it."

About 1 in 8 cases is genetic, Agus says. 

"There is some genetics to all dementia, but genetics is not your destiny," Devi explained. "...Genetics is one part of it, but there's a whole other bunch of other things you can do to prevent dementia."

FTD accounts for about 10% to 20% of dementia cases, a smaller number than Alzheimer's disease, making up about 50,000 to 60,000 cases a year. "But it's probably higher because it's under-diagnosed," Agus said. 

Devi notes, "It usually affects younger individuals, people in their 50s and 60s, as opposed to Alzheimer's, which affects older individuals."

According to Johns Hopkins, FTD affects men and women equally, and symptoms typically start between the ages of 40 and 65. 

For those looking to reduce their risk, Agus stressed the importance of keeping your brain active.

"Do things that make you uncomfortable ... don't just sit back and relax," he suggests. "The more you're engaged, the more we can prevent it. Although, in general, it will just delay it, it won't actually stop it from happening."

Bruce Willis' frontotemporal dementia diagnosis

In an Instagram post in February 2023, Bruce Willis' family revealed he was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.

The actor's family shared this was an updated, more specific diagnosis from his spring 2022 diagnosis of aphasia, a condition that affects a patient's ability to understand language and communicate.

"Unfortunately, challenges with communication are just one symptom of the disease Bruce faces. While this is painful, it is a relief to finally have a clear diagnosis," an extended post on the website of the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration reads.

-Caitlin O'Kane contributed reporting.

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