Bruce Willis retired from acting in May of 2022 after he began experiencing symptoms of aphasia. Family members confirmed Thursday that the 67-year-old Die Hard star has now been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD). According to a statement from the Willis family, “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.”
Willis’s health brings a less-commonly recognized form of dementia into the national spotlight and, while there’s an outpouring of support and prayers for the actor and his family, the news is leaving many wondering: what is FTD anyway?
Here’s what to know about frontotemporal dementia (FTD)
Mayo Clinic defines frontotemporal dementia (FTD) as a group of brain disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It’s characterized by changes in behavior and the ability to speak and understand spoken language. Unlike other forms of dementia that usually present symptoms later in life, FTD can be detected as early as age 50.
What are the types of frontotemporal dementia?
At the onset of FTD, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact type occurring in an individual since symptoms vary from person to person. Manifestations of the disease may mimic other conditions, especially at first (as seen with Bruce Willis and his initial diagnosis of aphasia). Here are 3 types of frontotemporal dementia to know:
Behavior variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) – This is the most common frontotemporal disorder. It causes noticeable personality changes as well as changes in behavior, emotions, and judgment. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in bfFTD, “the nerve cell loss is most prominent in areas that control conduct, judgment, empathy and foresight, among other abilities.”
Primary progressive aphasia (PPA) – Primary progressive aphasia is characterized by the degeneration of language and communication skills. This includes speaking, reading, writing, and comprehending written or spoken words. PPA variants are usually categorized by what type of language problems first appear. The three common variants are:
- Semantic PPA – This is when the person loses the ability to comprehend spoken words or put together a sentence. Common objects or familiar faces may become increasingly difficult for that person to identify by name.
- Agrammatic PPA – This is when a person has great difficulty speaking coherently. Eventually, they may lose all ability to speak
- Logopenic PPA – This is when finding the right words while carrying on a conversation becomes a noticeable, recurring problem.
Movement disorders – Corticobasal syndrome and progressive supranuclear palsy are two rare movement disorders that are associated with FTD. Corticobasal syndrome causes progressive loss of the ability to control movement and supranuclear palsy causes trouble with balance.
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What are the early symptoms of FTD?
Early symptoms of FTD may present in different ways for different people. This is because the disease does not always begin in the same area of the brain. Although blurred lines exist among different types of FTD and other health conditions, here are some common early symptoms:
- Antisocial or standoffish behavior
- Personality or mood changes
- Difficulty speaking
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What are the common symptoms of FTD?
Symptoms widely vary from one variant to another as well as from person to person. It’s important to realize that while you or a loved one may experience one or more of these symptoms, only a medical professional can diagnose frontotemporal dementia. Here are the common symptoms usually associated with FTD:
- Inability to display good judgment
- Inability to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate social behavior
- Loss of empathy
- Loss of inhibition (speaking rudely or displaying inappropriate behavior in public)
- Changes in eating habits, including pica (the consumption of non-food items)
- Laughing or crying when inappropriate
Speech and language
- Understanding spoken language and comprehending written words becoming increasingly difficult
- Trouble finding the right word when speaking or naming objects or familiar faces
- No longer knowing the meaning of words
- Making mistakes in sentence construction
Some variants of FTD affect motor skills more than others. Again, the lines are often blurred from one variant to another, but some motor-related issues that can occur are:
- Muscle spasms or weakness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Poor coordination
- Poor balance
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What causes frontotemporal dementia?
According to WebMD, “scientists don’t know for sure what causes FTD. But it starts when nerve cells in two parts, or “lobes,” of the brain — the front and the side — die. That causes the lobes to shrink.” In addition, genetic mutations have been linked to FTD. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that about one-third of all cases are inherited.
How is frontotemporal dementia treated?
There is no cure for frontotemporal dementia. And, while there are no direct treatments for FTD, research continues. Doctors, however, can prescribe various medications to treat symptoms and help improve quality of life.
Need help finding dementia resources?
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of FTD or other forms of dementia, then consult a doctor as soon as possible.
For additional dementia resources, visit these links:
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Senior Resource Center