Was Wendy Williams’ dementia caused by alcoholism? Experts share insights

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Former TV talk show host Wendy Williams, 59, was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and aphasia, which impairs the ability to communicate, in 2023, a representative confirmed on Thursday.

Given Williams’ reported history of alcoholism, experts are speaking out about the potential link between her alcohol abuse and current cognitive issues.

Thursday’s announcement of Williams’ diagnosis came ahead of a new Lifetime documentary — titled “Where Is Wendy Williams?” — that will premiere on Saturday, as her representative aims to “correct inaccurate and hurtful rumors about her health.”

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Williams entered a facility in April 2023 to allegedly treat “cognitive issues” reportedly due to alcohol abuse, as her family communicates with her through a court-appointed legal guardian.

“In 2023, after undergoing a battery of medical tests, Wendy was officially diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia (FTD),” Williams’ care team stated in a press release.

Wendy Williams attends a private dinner at Fresco By Scotto on Feb. 21, 2023, in New York City. The former TV talk show host has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and aphasia. (Getty Images)

“Aphasia, a condition affecting language and communication abilities, and frontotemporal dementia, a progressive disorder impacting behavior and cognitive functions, have already presented significant hurdles in Wendy’s life.”

Fox News Digital reached out to Williams’ team requesting additional comment. 

Link between alcohol and brain health

Dr. Suzette Glasner, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles, California, has not treated or examined Williams but said heavy drinking and alcoholism can cause damage to both white and gray matter in the brain, and over time can lead to deteriorating cognitive functioning, including dementia.

“These neurocognitive impacts are a result of a combination of alcohol’s direct neurotoxic effects, depletion of nutrients in the body, impacts on liver functioning and disruption of communication between nerve cells in the brain,” Glasner told Fox News Digital.

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When heavy and chronic alcohol use leads to brain damage, an individual can experience problems with their attention, memory and reasoning, the expert said.

“In many cases, individuals who misuse or are addicted to alcohol and drugs struggle with overlapping chronic medical and psychiatric conditions, and this can make it very challenging to determine the etiology or cause of neurocognitive symptoms such as those observed in Wendy Williams,” Glasner said.

wendy williams against a dark background

Thursday’s announcement of Williams’ diagnosis came ahead of a new Lifetime documentary — titled “Where Is Wendy Williams?” — that will premiere on Saturday, as her representative aims to “correct inaccurate and hurtful rumors about her health.” (lya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Wilhelmina Models)

Neuropsychiatric symptoms including cognitive impairment are common in Grave’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder Williams has spoken about battling over the years.

“Those symptoms often improve with treatment; however, like other chronic diseases, alcohol or drug use can complicate or interfere with treatment response, making improvements less likely,” noted Glasner. 

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Elizabeth Landsverk, M.D., a geriatric and dementia expert in San Francisco, also has not treated Williams but said that substance misuse has been previously linked to cognitive decline. She also noted that the extent of its impact isn’t clear.

“Not enough research has been conducted on the matter to give us precise data,” she told Fox News Digital.  

“What has been noted is that alcohol abuse — as well as taking a number of other medications — does increase the risk of developing dementia.” 

What amount of alcohol is dangerous?

Brain damage and neurocognitive impacts can occur with heavy drinking in individuals with moderate or severe alcohol use disorders, Grasner said — “so there is a wide variation between individuals in the quantity of alcohol that leads to these neurotoxic effects.”

“The specific reasons that some individuals develop alcohol-related dementia whereas others do not are not well understood, so we don’t currently have guidelines specifying that if you drink a certain amount, you are likely to experience cognitive impairments,” she added. 

Woman drinking beer

Brain damage and neurocognitive impacts can occur with heavy drinking in individuals with moderate or severe alcohol use disorders, an expert said. (iStock)

Women are generally more vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain and body, Glasner noted, which means the onset can occur at a younger age than it would in men.

“Expert evaluation of the contribution of substance use and other underlying medical conditions such as Grave’s Disease to cognitive symptoms would be very important for Williams to ensure that she receives the right treatments at the right time,” Glasner recommended.

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“Often involving a family very closely to evaluate the symptoms and the timing of their emergence relative to alcohol or other substance use can be helpful as part of determining an accurate diagnosis and plan of care,” she added.

Abstinence from alcohol is a crucial part of treatment for alcohol-related neurological deficits, noted Glasner.

“In many cases, individuals who misuse or are addicted to alcohol and drugs struggle with overlapping chronic medical and psychiatric conditions.”

If the condition is caught in time, abstaining from alcohol can at least partially, if not fully, reverse the symptoms, according to the expert.

Living with FTD and aphasia

While symptoms of FTD can vary depending on what part of the brain is affected, most people with the condition experience some common symptoms, as listed on the Johns Hopkins Medicine website. 

Behavior or personality changes are often the most obvious indicators. These may include public outbursts or socially inappropriate actions.

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People with FTD also tend to have impaired judgment, a lack of empathy and lower self-awareness, Johns Hopkins states. 

This type of dementia is also marked by a reduced ability to understand or formulate language.

virtual volumetric drawing of brain in hand

Heavy drinking and alcoholism can cause damage to both white and gray matter in the brain, and over time can lead to deteriorating cognitive functioning, a psychiatrist said. (iStock)

People may struggle to remember the names of objects, string words into sentences or even recall the meanings of words they used to know. 

The condition can also lead to agitation, irritability and drastic mood swings.

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There is no treatment for FTD other than managing symptoms and educating family members and caregivers, according to Hackensack Meridian Neuroscience Institute in New Jersey.

Some aphasia symptoms can be managed with speech therapy.

“The specific reasons why some individuals develop alcohol-related dementia whereas others do not are not well understood.”

“Treatment focuses a great deal on family education,” said Reena Gottesman, M.D., a behavioral neurologist at the Center for Brain Loss and Memory Health at Hackensack Meridian Neuroscience Institute, in a press release.

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Approximately 50,000-60,000 people may have FTD, per data from the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit group based in Chicago.

Recently, actor Bruce Willis’ FTD diagnosis brought new attention to the rare condition.

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