Getting Answers: Baystate doctor explains Bruce Willis’ dementia diagnosis

Getting Answers: Baystate doctor explains Bruce Willis’ dementia diagnosis
Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 2:38 PM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - It’s been nearly a year since Bruce Willis was diagnosed with aphasia and stepped away from acting. Now, his family said Thursday that his condition has progressed and that he’s been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD. Like Alzheimer’s disease, it involves the deterioration of brain cells, but there are key differences.

“Even people with Alzheimer’s disease, their personality stay relatively preserved for a long period of time. One of the first things a lot of folks with FTD change is who they are, that personality changes,” said Dr. Steve Bonasera, medical director of Baystate’s Memory Assessment Care.

Bonasera told Western Mass News that FTD is less common than Alzheimer’s and usually strikes earlier - people in their 40s to 60s. There are different kinds of FTD depending on which region of the brain is affected.

“One of the most cruel things about many of the frontotemporal dementias is that as they lose their emotional abilities, they really are very different people to who you know and remember and love,” Bonasera explained.

The form of FTD Willis has affects language, speaking, and writing. Other forms affect behavior and personality as nerve cells critical to empathy and judgement start deteriorating.

“This is often noticed by families fairly quickly because if you take your parents out to dinner and, all the sudden, they find that one of them is sitting at a table with people they don’t know eating food off their plate, that’s a pretty strong that’s something in which just is not really experienced commonly in everyday life,” Bonasera added.

Bonasera said a small group of patients develop new skills.

“Such an unusual disease. In certain people who have had FTD, they’ve actually developed newfound artistic abilities that they didn’t have when they were younger,” Bonasera noted.

However, as the disease progresses, with no known treatments or cure, symptoms worsen.

“Ultimately, as more and more of the brain is involved, things start to get and look the same. People have difficulty controlling the ability to swallow, the ability to walk, so at the end of these diseases, they all sort of begin to look the same,” Bonasera said.

Other than family history, there are no known risk factor, but Bonasera told us the same things that keep your heart healthy, keep your brain healthy including regular exercise, a diet moderate in fat and meat consumption, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol.

“Even when people have Alzheimer’s or FTD, they’re not as bad if you have a good vascular flow going to the brain, so the rest of your brain works really, really well,” Bonasera said.

The average life expectancy is seven to 13 years after the onset of symptoms. Willis’ family said that as his condition advances, they hope media attention is focused on shining a light on the disease, for which there is no cure.