Bruce Willis Diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia

The actor's family revealed the diagnosis he received from the medical team. Is there any treatment to reverse his dementia?
Bruce Willis Diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 February, 2023

After the initial diagnosis of aphasia, we now know that Bruce Willis is suffering from frontotemporal dementia. His family announced on social networks that a certification of this pathology was finally reached, after a long process of studies and analysis.

His daughter, Rumer Willis, had communicated in October 2022 that the legendary actor was retiring from filming. Cognitive difficulties prevented him from carrying out his roles or even memorizing lines.

After a period of silence on the matter, the movie action icon is now able to face his condition. According to his family members, “it’s a relief to finally have a clear diagnosis”.

Aphasia was Bruce Willis’ first diagnosis

In October 2022, we were informed of Bruce Willis’ aphasia. In itself, this disorder is a communication disorder. Sufferers have problems understanding the messages they receive or problems expressing what they want to convey.

There are different symptoms associated with aphasia:

  • Saying words half-spoken or cut off
  • Changing the letters of a spoken word
  • Placing incongruent words in a sentence
  • Expressing sentences that don’t make sense or have no coherence
  • Not understanding metaphors heard or read. In other words, understanding everything verbatim.

There are underlying causes of aphasia. When a patient is diagnosed with this language disorder, he or she generally must then go through a series of tests and examinations to look for the source.

In the case of Bruce Willis, the diagnostic pathway led to the identification of frontotemporal dementia as the underlying disease.
Bruce Willis has dementia.
It can take a long time for doctors to certify a case of dementia.

What is frontotemporal dementia?

When we talk about this type of dementia, we are actually referring to a set of disorders that have in common the involvement of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Strictly speaking, what happens is that these regions of the brain shrink in size, i.e. atrophy.

The frontotemporal area is responsible for language and has a strong influence on behavior and personality.

According to statistics, frontotemporal dementia is the third most common cause of dementia in the general population. However, if we only look at those over 65 years of age, it rises to second place.

The average age of onset is 58 years. However, it’s difficult to establish the exact time of onset of symptoms. After diagnosis, patients live 7-8 years longer.

How is it diagnosed?

The situation of Bruce Willis and his diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia shows us how difficult it is to reach conclusions in patients with these conditions. Almost 6 months have passed between the initial impression of aphasia and the confirmation of his disease.

Once the symptoms appear, doctors request some tests that help to rule out certain pathologies. This usually starts with blood tests.

The next step is usually memory and intellect tests. Using tests, psychologists and neurologists determine which cognitive areas are most affected. These evaluations are fundamental in the differential diagnosis, since there is no single type of dementia. In particular, one of the main goals is to rule out Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, imaging data are essential. Physicians request MRI and PET scans to find anatomical changes in the brain that denote the existence of atrophies, clots or tumor lesions.

How will Bruce Willis’ frontotemporal dementia be treated?

Unfortunately, there is no curative treatment for Bruce Willis’ frontotemporal dementia. The actor will receive multidisciplinary support that will attempt to improve his quality of life, but no medication has been developed to reverse the atrophy of the brain lobes or surgery to correct it.

Antidepressants and antipsychotics are sometimes prescribed. These substances are used to control symptoms that may worsen with the progression of dementia.

Speech therapists are an essential part of the treatment team. With them, patients work on their language problems. The professionals help them to express themselves better and to find strategies to understand the messages they receive, both written and audible.

A brain scan.
Atrophy of the cerebral lobes is the predominant lesion in Bruce Willis’ dementia.

Support as rehabilitation

Currently, the best strategy to accompany frontotemporal dementia is expert-guided rehabilitation. In this regard, family members, friends and caregivers can help with simple measures that increase patients’ comfort:

  • Encouraging physical exercise.
  • Improving accessibility in the home to prevent domestic accidents.
  • Developing a routine that is repeated day by day and that orders actions in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
  • Simplifying daily tasks that the person can do by him/herself. Ingredients for meals can be left on hand and visual reminders can be placed for the location of certain objects, for example.

Bruce Willis’ life will change dramatically after being diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. And it will change for his family as well. Adaptation is a slow and gradual process that demands physical and mental effort from everyone involved.

The actor has left a legacy for posterity in his performances and vast filmography. Now it is time to devote himself fully to coping with a condition that has taken him completely by surprise.

Cover photo by Angela Weiss, AFP.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bang, J., Spina, S., & Miller, B. L. (2015). Frontotemporal dementia. The Lancet386(10004), 1672-1682.
  • Cruzado, L., Custodio, N., Montesinos, R., & Lanata, S. (2021). Demencia frontotemporal-variante conductual como diagnóstico diferencial de trastornos psiquiátricos primarios. Revista de Neuro-Psiquiatría84(3), 183-204.
  • Ducharme, S., Price, B. H., Larvie, M., Dougherty, D. D., & Dickerson, B. C. (2015). Clinical approach to the differential diagnosis between behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia and primary psychiatric disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry172(9), 827-837.
  • Rubio, Á. M., Rubio, M. B., Pardos, B. G., Martínez, A. I. A., Santamaría, E. M., & Borque, L. B. (2021). Evidencia científica de la aplicación de tratamiento rehabilitador en la demencia frontotemporal: Revisión bibliográfica. Revista Sanitaria de Investigación2(10), 69.
  • Toloza-Ramírez, D., Méndez-Orellana, C., & Martella, D. (2021). Diagnóstico neuropsicológico diferencial en enfermedad de Alzheimer y demencia frontotemporal: una revisión sistemática cualitativa. Neurology Perspectives1(1), 82-97.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.