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What You Need to Know about Bruce Willis’ Frontotemporal Dementia Diagnosis

Actor Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, a group of brain disorders caused by degeneration of the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain. Initially, Willis had been diagnosed with aphasia, but when his symptoms worsened it clarified the diagnosis of FTD.

“Bruce Willis is such a relatable actor, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people can relate to what he and his family are going through now,” said Aaron Ritter, M.D., Larkin Family Endowed Chair in Integrative Brain Health and director of the Memory & Cognitive Disorders Program at Hoag’s Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute.

An estimated 60,000 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with FTD.

“Misdiagnosis is common because the disease can ‘look’ like other things for a few years before it begins to progress,” said Dr. Ritter.

If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss, significant personality changes or dementia, visit Hoag,

Dr. Ritter explained some important things to keep in mind about FTD:

Left side of the brain. FTD comes in two versions. Whereas Alzheimer’s disease attacks the memory centers of the brain, FTD attacks both the frontal and temporal lobes. “The unusual thing about FTD is what side of the brain is affected. If the left side of the brain (the language side) is affected a person may have problems with language-specifically, difficulty with saying or speaking words or mixing up words,” said Dr. Ritter.

Progressive aphasia. If the left side of the brain is affected by FTD a person develops a symptom called progressive aphasia. “Almost like a stroke it can be hard for a person to complete sentences or think of words. Because it affects language and not just speech, a person may have a hard time understanding, so this can look like hearing loss. Unlike a stroke, in this condition the aphasia worsens over time,” said Dr. Ritter.

Right side of the brain. “If the right side of the brain is affected a person may have distinct changes in behavior and personality such as being less emotional, becoming disinhibited (saying or acting impulsively) or having changes in food preferences,” Dr. Ritter said.

Treatments are elusive. Although there are no cures or treatments for FTD obtaining an accurate diagnosis is an important step. Many of the normal symptoms of aging or other medical illnesses may overlap with the symptoms of FTD so getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step. “Getting a diagnosis can help with managing symptoms, planning a treatment course, and potentially participating in studies and registries that are so important in advancing new therapeutics,” said Dr. Ritter.