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Wendy Williams Diagnosed With Frontotemporal Dementia: What to Know About the Incurable Brain Disorder

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It’s been nearly two years since Wendy Williams stepped away from the public eye after being placed under the control of a court-ordered guardian in 2022, and now, fans are getting more insight into her situation. In a press release sent out on Thursday, the former daytime talk show host’s care team revealed that she was diagnosed in 2023 with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia.

As Williams’ manager, Will Shelby, previously told ET, Williams checked into a treatment facility in April 2023 for several reasons, including “cognitive issues” and to confront her battle with alcohol addiction, a move prompted by concerns from her son about the potentially fatal consequences of her addiction.

In the released statement, Williams’ care team wrote that they were revealing the former talk show host’s diagnosis in an attempt “to correct inaccurate and hurtful rumors about her health.”

“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,” the release stated. It added that the decision to share this news was difficult, but in doing so, Williams and her team are hoping to raise awareness about aphasia and FTD.

“In 2023, after undergoing a battery of medical tests, Wendy was officially diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia (FTD)…Wendy would not have received confirmation of these diagnoses were it not for the diligence of her current care team, who she chose, and the extraordinary work of the specialists at Weill Cornell Medicine. Receiving a diagnosis has enabled Wendy to receive the medical care she requires,” the statement continued. 

“Wendy is still able to do many things for herself. 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,” the release concluded.

So what exactly is frontotemporal dementia, and how does it manifest in those dealing with the condition? 

ET previously spoke with Dr. Allison Reiss, an Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s Medical, Scientific and Memory Screening Advisory Board Member, after Bruce Willis was diagnosed with FTD last year, and she explained more about the condition. 

“It’s a group of diseases that have the common factor that the brain loses brain cells, brain cells die [and there is] neuro degeneration,” Reiss said. “We don’t understand why, but they die in specific areas.”

According to Reiss, the “hodgepodge of different things that have been put together” leads to “a lot of devastating consequences.”

While Reiss noted that a person having aphasia “does not necessarily mean that they have frontotemporal dementia,” Williams does have FTD, of which there are two primary types — behavior variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), which causes sometimes drastic changes in a person’s behavior and personality, and primary progressive aphasia (PPA), which can dramatically impact a person’s writing ability, language comprehension and communication.

Williams has been diagnosed with the latter form of FTD. 

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“The [brain cell] loss is in naming and comprehension. [People will exhibit] trouble with language… and difficulty saying words, understanding the meaning of words, and remembering and naming familiar objects,” Reiss said of PPA. “A lot of times, people with frontotemporal dementia can’t think of the word, or they think of a close word, and they’ll mix things up.” 

“They can’t get the words out, but they know what they want to say,” she continued. “As the disease progresses, you also lose the understanding of the meaning of words. You get less and less able to produce language and the language you produce may not make sense or come out the way that you want it to.”

Ultimately, she said, everything “just gets more difficult” as “the problem spreads and gets worse.”

“As it gets worse, you can’t ignore it or deny it. You have to adjust as best you can to it,” Reiss said. “… It just progresses and progresses until at the very end… you pretty much lose everything, which is so sad and tragic. The essence of self you can’t reach anymore at the end.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Frontotemporal degeneration is inherited in about a third of all cases. Genetic counseling and testing are available now in individuals with family histories of frontotemporal degeneration. There are no known risk factors for any frontotemporal degeneration except for a family history or a similar disorder.”

“We know so little about it. We just know that frontotemporal dementia is the most common type of dimension in younger people, like 40 to 60, and some of it is inherited,” Reiss stated. “There are inherited versions, but mostly it’s just sporadic. It just comes on [in] certain people, and we don’t have a reason, and we don’t have a cause, and we don’t have a treatment.”

Reiss noted that, ultimately, frontotemporal dementia “definitely does shorten” a person’s lifespan. Even so, she encouraged families to maintain hope through the challenging times.

“To all the families, there really is hope that we can do something about this to disease,” she said. “… I have so much belief in the research community and the new technologies that, if we put our minds to it and if we put our energies and efforts to it, we can find things. It’s not impossible and I just want it to get done.”

The news comes two days before the premiere of the four-and-a-half-hour, two-night documentary event that chronicles the events leading to Williams being placed under the control of a court-ordered guardian

Where Is Wendy Williams? claims to be Williams’ chance to retell the past from her perspective and share her story on her terms. Production on the documentary began in 2022, to chronicle the next stage of Williams’ career and her plans to release a new podcast. But when the star entered a treatment facility, documentary production was forced to pivot.

Over the last several years, the TV personality’s health struggles — coupled with upheaval in her personal life — have been well documented: from fainting on live TV back in October 2017 (which she claimed was from dehydration), revealing her Graves’ disease diagnosis on her show in February 2018 (forcing her to take three weeks off) and her shoulder fracture in December 2018, to dealing with a very public breakup with then-husband Kevin Hunter, whom she officially divorced in January 2020 after 25 years of marriage.

In February 2022, Wells Fargo alleged that Williams was of “unsound mind” and required guardianship due to purported “undue influence and financial exploitation.” Williams vehemently denied those claims and demanded the return of her money.

Production of The Wendy Williams Show was canceled in June 2022. Shortly after, Sherri Shepherd took over Williams’ time slot.

The Wendy Williams Show/YouTube

In a preview of a Nightline sit-down interview with Deborah Roberts shown on Thursday’s Good Morning America, Alex Finnie — Williams’ niece — says that her aunt saw the project as a way to take ownership of her narrative.

“I understand that people will look at it, and — some people will look at it and think that. But I will say this, first and foremost, my aunt is the executive producer of this documentary,” she says. “And when I finally talked with her and I said to her, ‘Aunt Wendy, why are — do you wanna do this?’ You know, ‘You’re — you’re — you’re clearly– the health piece, all of that has to be addressed. Is now the right time?’ And she said, ‘Now is the perfect time because I wanna take ownership of my story.'”

Finnie tells the 20/20 co-anchor that the family has been “shut out” by the state of New York, preventing them from being able to provide assistance to Williams. Still, she says she wishes nothing but the best for her aunt.

“The only person that comes out of this victorious, I hope, is my aunt. I know that … in talking with her, she does hope to resume [her] career,” she adds. “And my hope for her is that she does whatever she wants to do that makes her happy and that stays in the bounds of keeping her healthy.”

Roberts reports that Williams’ family claims that they don’t know where the aforementioned facility is but they have heard from her and that she sounds “much better.”

For additional information/resources about Alzheimer’s and dementia, visit the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America website.

Where is Wendy Williams?, a four-and-a-half-hour, two-night documentary event, will premiere Saturday, Feb. 24 and Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.

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