Understanding Frontotemporal Disorders

The National Institute on Aging offers information about these brain disorders that strike middle-aged adults, causing devastating changes in behavior, personality, emotions, language and movement.

Most Americans are familiar with Alzheimer’s disease. But few are aware of the impact of frontotemporal disorders, the cause of up to 10 percent of dementia cases. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, these devastating disorders usually strike during middle age. Patients and families struggle to cope with changed relationships and the person’s daily needs.

Frontotemporal disorders are caused by changes in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

The frontal lobes control higher-level thinking, such as planning, prioritizing and multitasking. This area of the brain also is involved in language and in motor functions, such as moving the arms, legs and mouth. The frontal lobes help manage emotional responses and enable people to control inappropriate social behaviors.

The temporal lobes play a major role in language and emotions. This area of the brain helps people speak, read, write and connect words with their meanings. It is involved in recognizing recognize objects, including faces, and in relating appropriate emotions to objects and events. When the temporal lobes are dysfunctional, people may have difficulty recognizing emotions and responding appropriately to them.

Depending on which area of the brain is affected, frontotemporal disorders may cause:

  • Physical symptoms—abnormal movement in hands and feet; tremor; loss of coordination.
  • Loss of language—a decline in the ability to speak, understand language, read or write.
  • Emotional changes—apathy; inappropriate emotional responses; lack of social inhibition.
  • Personality changes—problems with thinking; a decline in judgment and insight; embarrassing and uncharacteristic behavior.

The changes may be subtle at first. Families and friends often report that the patient “isn’t acting like himself.” According to the National Institute on Aging, frontotemporal disorders can be hard to diagnose because their symptoms are similar to conditions such as stroke, depression or other types of dementia. But early diagnosis allows patients to get the help they need and plan for treatment and future care. Family caregivers should learn all they can about their loved one’s condition to reduce frustration and cope with the challenges of caring for someone who is gradually losing many of their abilities.

Treatment to control symptoms

At present, there is no cure for frontotemporal disorders. Treatment cannot halt the progression of the disease, but it can help manage symptoms. Several classes of medications are currently used. Physical, occupational and speech-language therapy help patients with movement and speech problems. Physicians, nurses, social workers, and physical, occupational and speech therapists who are familiar with frontotemporal disorders help ensure that patients have the highest possible quality of life and receive appropriate medical treatment.

For More Information

Family caregivers of patients with frontotemporal disorders face a host of challenges, from day-to-day medical care to handling changing relationships. Visit the U.S. National Institute on Aging website to read “Frontotemporal Disorders: Information for Patients, Families and Caregivers” (http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/frontotemporal-disorders) online, or call 1-800-438-4380.

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