Bruce Willis diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia: What you should know about the disease

Almost a year after it was announced that he was stepping away from acting, Bruce Willis' family announced that the actor has been diagnosed with a form of dementia called frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

"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," the family wrote.

Here's what you should know about the disease Willis has been diagnosed with.

I thought Bruce Willis had aphasia. What happened to that?

When it was announced that Willis was stepping away from acting in 2022, his family revealed that the actor was diagnosed with aphasia.

According to the Mayo Clinic, aphasia is a disorder that affects how a person communicates.

"Aphasia usually happens suddenly after a stroke or a head injury. But it can also come on gradually from a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease that causes progressive, permanent damage (degenerative)," a portion of Mayo Clinic's website reads.

In a statement released on Feb. 16, 2023, members of Willis' family said since their announcement in 2022, Willis' condition has progressed, and a diagnosis of FTD was given.

"For people under 60, FTD is the most common form of dementia, and because getting the diagnosis can take years, FTD is likely much more prevalent than we know," a portion of the statement read.

What is frontotemporal dementia?

According to the Mayo Clinic's webpage on the condition, frontoptemporal dementia, also known as FTD, is an umbrella term for a group of brain disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

"These areas of the brain are generally associated with personality, behavior and language," read a portion of the webpage.

On the website of the Alzheimer's Association, it is noted that FTD used to be called "Pick's Disease," after a physician who first described, in 1892, a patient with distinct symptoms affecting language. The website states that some doctors still use that name for the condition. Other names for FTD include:

  • Frontotemporal disorders
  • Frontotemporal degeneration
  • Frontal lobe disorders

What causes frontotemporal dementia?

According to the Cleveland Clinic's website, FTD usually happens when there is a malfunction in how a person's body creates certain proteins.

"A key part of how proteins work is their shape. Much like how a key won't turn or open a lock if it's not the right shape, your cells can't use proteins when they're not the right shape. Your cells often can't break those faulty proteins down and get rid of them," read a portion of the Cleveland Clinic's website.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are genetic mutations that have been linked to FTD, while also noting that more than half of those who develop FTD have no family history of dementia.

What are the symptoms of frontotemporal dementia?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, as the frontal and temporal lobes of an FTD patient deteriorates, they will lose the abilities those parts controlled.

Symptoms of FTD, according to the Cleveland Clinic, include:

  • Loss of inhibitions, such as a loss of ‘filter’ for what a person says, a lack of respect for others, and/or impulsive actions and behaviors
  • Apathy, such as a loss of motivation, social isolation, and/or a decline in self-care and hygiene
  • Loss of empathy, or trouble with reading the emotions of others, making a person appear as if they are behaving in a cold, unfeeling or uncaring way
  • Compulsive behaviors, such as repetitive motions, complex or ritual-like behaviors, and/or speech repetition
  • Changes in diet or mouth-centered behaviors
  • Loss of executive function, or the ability to plan and solve problems, stay organized, and motivate oneself to carry out tasks

Mayo Clinic officials say FTD can be misdiagnosed as either a psychiatric problem or as Alzheimer's disease.

Can you catch frontotemporal dementia?

Cleveland Clinic officials say FTD can't be passed from person to person. However, the disease does run in families, so a person has a higher chance of developing FTD if they have a family member who has it.

Can frontotemporal dementia be cured or treated?

Both the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic's websites state there are no current cures for FTD, and there are also no direct or specific treatments for it.

"Drugs used to treat or slow Alzheimer's disease don't seem to be helpful for people with frontotemporal dementia, and some may worsen the symptoms of frontotemporal dementia. But certain medications and speech therapy can help manage symptoms of frontotemporal dementia," read a portion of the Mayo Clinic's website.

People with FTD should talk to a doctor or specialist on treatment options.

What can I do to prevent or reduce my risk of getting frontotemporal dementia?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, there's no way to prevent getting FTD, since it happens unpredictably. However, there are things people can do to help lower the rush of developing it.

"The sole way to reduce your risk of developing FTD is to avoid head injuries. Having a past head injury more than triples your risk of developing FTD," read a portion of the website.

How long do people with frontotemporal dementia live?

The Cleveland Clinic's website states the average life expectancy following an FTD diagnosis is 7.5 years.

"While FTD isn’t fatal on its own, it often causes other issues that are serious or even life-threatening," read a portion of the website. "Your healthcare provider (or the provider for your loved one) is the best person to tell you more about the progress of the disease and the likely timeline."

This website does not provide medical advice. Information contained in this article are for informational purposes only, and nothing on this site should be considered as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

If you have a medical question, please seek advice from your physician or another qualified health care provider.

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Bruce Willis, in a photo taken in 2016. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)