Frontotemporal dementia: What is it?

May 8, 2023 Providence Stroke & Cognitive Care Center


In this article:

  • Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is caused by the progressive degeneration of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which play a significant role in decision-making, behavioral control, and language.

  • FTD occurs at a younger age than other forms of dementia – usually between ages 45 to 64.

  • Common symptoms of FTD include behavioral problems, speech and language dysfunction and problems with movement or motor skills.

In the spring of 2022, Bruce Willis shocked the world by announcing his departure from acting due to aphasia, a disorder that affects his ability to communicate. Since then, his condition has progressed, with the Willis Family recently sharing news of a more specific diagnosis: frontotemporal dementia.

What is frontotemporal dementia?

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a group of disorders caused by the progressive degeneration of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which play a significant role in decision-making, behavioral control, and language.

“FTD is caused by the buildup of specific proteins in the brain, such as proteins tau and TDP-43,” says Silvia P. Russo, M.D., a neurologist specializing in dementia and other brain impairments at Providence’s Stroke and Cognitive Care Center in Spokane, Washington.While we don’t know for sure what causes these proteins to build up, some genetic factors are at play.”

FTD typically occurs at a younger age than other forms of dementia. According to the National Institute on Aging, about 60% of people diagnosed with FTD are between the ages of 45 to 64.

Signs and symptoms of FTD

While signs of FTD can vary widely among patients and tend to progress over time as different parts of the brain are affected, all are marked by a steady decline in the person’s ability to think and function. Some common symptoms of FTD include:

  • Changes in personality
  • Lack of sympathy for other people’s conditions
  • Reduced interest in doing things
  • Ritualistic behavior (repetitive and compulsive movements)
  • Change in eating habits
  • Movement problems (weakened or stiff muscles, slow reflexes or even muscle spasms)
  • Speech and language problems (difficulties reading, writing or expressing themselves)

Because of the overlap in symptoms and how rare FTD is, it is often misdiagnosed with other conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or even psychiatric problems such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia.

Can frontotemporal dementia be treated?

Unfortunately, there is still no cure for FTD and no way to prevent it, says Dr. Russo.

“At Providence, our treatment focuses primarily on managing the patient’s symptoms,” Dr. Russo explains. “For some of the more bothersome personality changes, we typically use antidepressants with low cognitive side effects. Other personality and behavior changes can often be managed without medications.

“By approaching and communicating with the patient in different ways, we’re able to address the changes in behavior and cognition they are experiencing.”

Some patients with FTD may also develop Lou Gehrig’s disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS). In this case, treatment will also focus on the symptoms that derive from ALS, such as muscle weakness.

Risk factors for developing FTD

Some risk factors are genetic, and we still do not have a way to modify these, says. Dr. Russo. In general, if you have a family history of dementia, your risk of developing FTD is greater than others with no history.

While more research is needed, some studies suggest a connection between head trauma, social isolation and physical inactivity with a higher incidence rate of FTD.

Reduce your risk of cognitive decline

While we can’t prevent the onset of conditions like FTD, Dr. Russo says there are some lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce your risk of developing forms of cognitive decline later in life.

These include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Staying socially and intellectually engaged
  • Eating a healthy diet

If you suspect you may have some signs or symptoms of FTD or cognitive decline, don’t wait – make an appointment with your primary care provider who can connect you with one of our Providence Neuroscience Institute specialists. You can take comfort in knowing your care team at Providence is experienced in treating and managing cognitive diseases like FTD, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Contributing Caregiver

Silvia P. Russo, M.D., a neurologist with Providence Stroke and Cognitive Care Center, which is part of Providence Neuroscience institute.

Dr. Russo is a board-certified, fellowship-trained behavioral health neurologist who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other brain impairments. During her time at Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Russo participated in research activities, including the Clinical Core of the Stanford Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), and served as an investigator for clinical trials in Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Russo brings a wealth of knowledge to Providence’s Stroke and Cognitive Care Center, which expands access to specialized care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and people with other cognitive challenges.

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Related resources

Memory loss could be a sign of dementia

How to embrace healthy aging with healthy habits

New research brings hope for detecting and preventing Alzheimer’s disease

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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