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Wendy Williams’ aphasia diagnosis puts a spotlight on the neurological condition

The former talk show host was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia last year, her team announced.
Wendy Williams smiling
Wendy Williams was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 2019.Michael Tran / FilmMagic via Getty Images

The announcement that former talk show host Wendy Williams has been diagnosed with aphasia has put the neurological condition — the same one actor Bruce Willis was diagnosed with in 2022 — back in the spotlight.

Aphasia affects a person's ability to speak, read, write and understand others. The condition usually comes on suddenly from a brain injury or stroke, but in some cases it can develop over time as a result of a neurodegenerative disease. When that happens, the syndrome is known as primary progressive aphasia, or PPA.

Williams' team said Thursday that her PPA diagnosis came last year, after a series of medical tests. Williams, 59, was also diagnosed with dementia.

"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," her team said in a news release.

Williams' team said that her conditions "have already presented significant hurdles," but that she is "receiving the care she requires to make sure she is protected and that her needs are addressed."

Symptoms of aphasia

Aphasia affects an estimated 2 million people in the U.S., and nearly 180,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, according to the National Aphasia Association.

The symptoms — and their severity — vary based on which type of aphasia a person has. Some severely affect a patient's speech and ability to read and write. Other types leave patients able to understand speech well and read adequately, but cause them to have difficulty finding words, according to the association.

In people with primary progressive aphasia, Williams' diagnosis, language skills become increasingly impaired over time. Some of the first symptoms are issues with speech and language; memory loss generally develops later.

Eventually, almost all people with PPA stop speaking and lose the ability to understand written or spoken language.

Patients with global aphasia, the most severe type, can only produce a few recognizable words, and they understand little spoken language, according to the association. Someone with this type of aphasia cannot read or write.

What causes aphasia?

Aphasia is most often caused by damage to areas of the brain that play a role in speech and language.

Twenty-five to 40% of stroke survivors develop it, according to the National Aphasia Association. It also can develop from a head injury or brain tumor.

Primary progressive aphasia, however, is caused by neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's — it's the result of the degradation of brain tissue. PPA can sometimes progress to a more generalized dementia, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How is aphasia treated?

Diagnosing aphasia usually involves an MRI or CT scan, as well as an assessment by a speech-language pathologist.

There is no cure for aphasia. However, depending on the type and severity, speech and language therapy can help some patients if those interventions begin soon after the condition's onset.

Research into the use of certain medications or brain stimulation to treat aphasia is ongoing, but no large-scale, long-term studies have been completed.