Wendy Williams was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and aphasia. What does it mean?

Wendy Williams
What to know about Wendy Williams's dementia and aphasia diagnosis. (Getty Images) (ANGELA WEISS via Getty Images)

On the heels of a new Lifetime documentary titled Where is Wendy Williams?, the former talk show host’s team has released a statement about her health. Wendy Williams is living with primary progressive aphasia (PPA) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a press release for the star confirmed on Thursday.

Williams, who also has Graves' disease and lymphedema, was diagnosed in 2023 after she “began to lose words, act erratically at times and have difficulty understanding financial transactions,” something that caused many to speculate about the state of her health. She left her talk show, The Wendy Williams Show, in 2022 due to health reasons, and the long-running program was canceled shortly afterward. Despite speculation in the media at the time, no specific details about what Williams was struggling with were disclosed.

Williams isn't the only star to be diagnosed with these conditions. In Feb. 2023, Bruce Willis's family shared that he is also living with FTD and aphasia.

What do aphasia and frontotemporal dementia mean and what are the symptoms? Here’s what to know.

What are aphasia and frontotemporal dementia?

Neuropsychologist Karen D. Sullivan, owner of I Care For Your Brain and a Reid Health Care Transformation Fellow at FirstHealth of the Carolinas in Pinehurst, N.C., tells Yahoo Life that FTD is a broad term for a group of disorders marked by the gradual decline of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. This degeneration leads to changes in personality, behavior and language.

Laura Boxley, clinical neuropsychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that there are two major types of frontotemporal dementia: PPA and behavioral variant FTD (bvFTD). Individuals with bvFTD can experience symptoms such as poor judgment, inappropriate behavior, impulsivity and diminished social interest, while symptoms of PPA are primarily a decline in language function. Early signs can include pauses in speech, difficulty finding words, mispronouncing words and difficulty understanding the speech of others.

“They may start to use a lot of filler words, or they dance around object naming by saying, ‘That object over there,’” explains Sullivan. While she notes that PPA tends to affect the expressive side of speech, she says the “receptive side” of speech can also be impaired, meaning individuals with the condition may have trouble understanding what someone is saying.

What can you do if you suspect your loved one may have these conditions?

If you notice your loved one seems to be suffering from a decline in language skills along with the symptoms of any dementia condition, Boxley says it’s important to reach out to a medical professional who specializes in neurodegenerative conditions. “A clinical team that includes both a neurologist and neuropsychologist will provide the best sensitivity and specificity for accurate diagnosis and prospective monitoring,” she says.

Boxley adds that it's important to recognize that individuals with issues such as FTD are very likely to struggle with accurate self-monitoring and awareness of their condition. “They often need the support of a designated family member or friend at their medical appointments to help comprehend and recall important medical information and to make decisions,” she says.

There is no medical cure for PPA. However, Sullivan says it’s crucial to seek trained medical professionals who can put in place care plans, such as speech therapy. This can help the patient find new ways to communicate.

“I've had patients have some success with making a ‘communication book,’ which is a book a speech therapist can create with pictures in it,” explains Sullivan. This is because often visual recognition will remain intact, even as the ability to verbally label objects declines. “They can do a pretty good job for some time with pointing, so you can facilitate communication,” she says. “At the end of the day, language and communication are different, and we want to engage them by becoming experts at communication. By working with a speech therapist or neuropsychologist, we can learn what the cognitive strengths are that we can call on.”