After Wendy Williams, former talk show host, revealed her dementia diagnosis, public interest in the topic has surged.

Last week, the world learned that Wendy Williams, a former talk show host known for her unapologetic humor, was diagnosed with aphasia and frontotemporal dementia. Wendy’s diagnosis made headlines, and Google reported a surge in search interest for terms like “dementia,” ”early onset dementia,” and “frontal lobe dementia causes.” 

At Death with Dignity, we get more questions about dementia and end-of-life care than any other topic. It’s a very common condition defined by a group of symptoms that have dramatic impacts on daily life. Mayo Clinic estimates more than 3 million U.S. cases every year, and the World Health Organization says it’s the seventh leading cause of death globally. 

What is Dementia?

Dementia describes a range of symptoms, including memory loss, language difficulties, and impaired problem-solving abilities, which significantly disrupt daily functioning. These symptoms not only lead to a decline in cognitive abilities but also impact behavior, emotions, and interpersonal relationships, ultimately affecting independence and quality of life. The Alzheimer’s Association explains that dementia is not a singular disease, but rather an umbrella term used for various conditions such as Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementia, and Huntington’s disease. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases, while frontotemporal dementia is much more rare, accounting for only 10-20% of all dementia cases.

Aphasia results from a stroke or a brain injury and affects the person’s ability to communicate. People who are diagnosed with aphasia are still competent and can make their own decisions; they just have a hard time speaking, reading, or writing clearly. It is possible to have aphasia on its own, and dementia can cause a specific type of aphasia called primary progressive aphasia.

How is Dementia Diagnosed?

Determining if a patient has dementia involves an extensive diagnostic process involving verbal and visual cognitive tests, PET scans, or an MRI. 

New draft guidelines, Revised Criteria for Diagnosis and Staging of Alzheimer’s Disease, make a case for using biomarkers to simplify the diagnostic process. Though there is much debate, and even conflicts of interest regarding the new guidelines, the potential of learning if an individual has dementia through a blood test is on the horizon.

Unequal Impact of Dementia

Dementia is not an equal-opportunity disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 14% of Black people in America over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s, compared to 10% of white people. By 2060, cases are expected to increase fourfold among Black individuals in the United States. 

Researchers are unclear about the exact cause of this disparity. However, one undeniable factor is the lack of culturally responsive healthcare and pervasive discrimination that exists for non-white populations in our healthcare system. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that half of Black individuals say they have experienced discrimination while seeking care for a person living with Alzheimer’s, and only 48% of Black Americans report being confident they can access culturally competent care.

Dementia is a complex and challenging condition, one that deserves priority when having conversations about end-of-life care with loved ones and medical providers. For more information about dementia, please visit The Alzheimer’s Association.