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Wendy Williams Has Frontotemporal Dementia and Aphasia

Representatives for the former talk show host announce her diagnoses

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Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Former daytime talk show host Wendy Williams, 59, has been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia, her team said in a news release Feb. 22.

Frontotemporal dementia is a result of damage to neurons in the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain, according to the National Institute on Aging. These areas of the brain are associated with personality, behavior and language. Primary progressive aphasia is a type of frontotemporal dementia that affects one’s ability to communicate. It tends to progress slowly, but symptoms get worse over time, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Most people with the condition eventually lose verbal and written communication skills, and they may lose the ability to understand language.

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“In 2023, after undergoing a battery of medical tests, Wendy was officially diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia,” her team said in a release.

In 2022, actor Bruce Willis was diagnosed with aphasia, and later it was announced that he has frontotemporal dementia.

Williams has been open about her struggles with other health issues, including Graves’ disease and lymphedema. She took a leave from her talk show, Wendy, in 2021, and in 2022, actress and comedian Sherri Shepherd took over as host of Sherri.

A new documentary, Where Is Wendy Williams?, premieres Saturday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime and can also be streamed on a number of TV services. “The documentary provides a raw, honest and unfiltered reality of Wendy’s life,” says a Lifetime press release, “including mental and physical issues.”

Video: 5 Signs of Dementia

Symptoms of frontotemporal dementia

Primary progressive aphasia is caused by an underlying brain disease. In some people, it’s a sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but in others — such as Williams, according to her team — it’s related to frontotemporal dementia.

Those with this form of dementia may act strangely in social situations, according to the National Institute on Aging, and they often don’t realize their behavior is unusual. Symptoms usually begin before age 65.

“Over the past few years, questions have been raised at times about Wendy’s ability to process information and many have speculated about Wendy’s condition, particularly when she began to lose words, act erratically at times, and have difficulty understanding financial transactions,” her team said in a release.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says symptoms of frontotemporal dementia can include:

  • Problems planning and sequencing
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks or activities
  • Repeating the same activity or saying the same word over and over
  • Acting impulsively or saying or doing inappropriate things without considering how others perceive the behavior
  • Becoming uninterested in family or activities they used to care about
  • Displaying flat, exaggerated or improper emotions that seem disconnected from the situation
  • Difficulty reading social signals, seeming to lack empathy
  • Compulsive eating or taking food from others’ plates

Understanding the disease

Scientists don’t yet understand exactly what causes frontotemporal dementia. The frontal lobes of the brain control executive functioning, which includes planning, prioritizing and multitasking. The temporal lobes are important for language and emotion. Initial symptoms depend on which area of the brain the disease affects first, so they can differ from person to person.

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People with primary progressive aphasia may have difficulty understanding words and speaking properly. They can also develop problems with memory, reasoning and judgment.  

In a statement, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America says Williams’ decision to disclose her diagnoses could help reduce stigma and support others living with dementia-related illnesses.

Treatment and prognosis

Most people with primary progressive aphasia live up to 12 years after their initial diagnosis, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Eventually, many people need support with daily activities. Treatment can include speech therapy and some medications, but there is no cure and no way to stop the progression of the disease.

In the news release, Williams’ team said they want to help others understand the neurological disorders. 

“The decision to share this news was difficult and made after careful consideration, not only to advocate for understanding and compassion for Wendy, but to raise awareness about aphasia and frontotemporal dementia and support the thousands of others facing similar circumstances,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, many individuals diagnosed with aphasia and frontotemporal dementia face stigma and misunderstanding, particularly when they begin to exhibit behavioral changes but have not yet received a diagnosis.”

Experts say people with primary progressive aphasia can continue to function relatively well for a number of years.

“Wendy is still able to do many things for herself,” her team said. “Most importantly she maintains her trademark sense of humor and is receiving the care she requires to make sure she is protected and that her needs are addressed. She is appreciative of the many kind thoughts and good wishes being sent her way.”

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