An article posted in The New York Times on May 2, 2021

Steve Riedner of Schaumburg, Ill., was a 55-year-old tool-and-die maker, a job that involves difficult mental calculations, and a frequent speaker at community meetings when he found himself increasingly at a loss for words and unable to remember numbers. He even began to have difficulty reading his own written comments.
The neurologist he consulted thought Mr. Riedner had suffered a stroke and for three years treated him with cholesterol-lowering medication. But instead of his language ability stabilizing or improving, as should happen following a stroke, it got worse.
A second neurologist concluded after further testing that Mr. Riedner might have a condition called primary progressive aphasia, or P.P.A., a form of dementia affecting the brain’s language center.
Having seen only one other case in his career, the neurologist referred Mr. Riedner and his wife, Mary Beth, to the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University, whose director, Dr. M. Marsel Mesulam, is perhaps the world’s leading expert on this relatively rare disorder.
P.P.A. is a clinical syndrome, one of several forms of brain disease lost in the medical shadow of their much better known relative Alzheimer’s disease. While hardly as common as Alzheimer’s, P.P.A. is often misdiagnosed, and many patients like Mr. Riedner lose valuable time trying inappropriate and ineffective treatments. Though there is no cure, patients and families can learn ways to minimize the disabilities it causes.
Unlike Alzheimer’s, P.P.A. does not affect memory, at least not initially. It also tends to occur at younger ages, often in the late 50s, and affects twice as many men as women. While symptoms of Alzheimer’s are readily recognized by friends and relatives but not those affected, people with P.P.A. are painfully aware of their struggle to communicate, often long before it is apparent to others.
“Early symptoms are usually very subtle, and patients may be the only ones aware of the problem because they have to work harder to communicate, even though they may not make obvious errors,” said Joseph R. Duffy, head of speech pathology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Initially, their communicative errors are like those we all make and may be written off as due to chronic fatigue. But gradually the errors of speech occur with increasing frequency.”
‘Like Being a Parent Again’
The disorder is also commonly misdiagnosed, usually as Alzheimer’s disease or a result of depression or anxiety, Dr. Duffy said in an interview. But while a definitive diagnosis can be made only at autopsy, the results of neuropsychological testing and the patient’s progressive difficulty with communication despite a normal memory can pinpoint P.P.A. as the problem.
As the condition worsens, cognitive difficulties may become apparent. Now seven years into the disorder, Mr. Riedner is having increasing problems performing the tasks of daily living.
“He can no longer punch in the numbers to operate the garage door or the microwave or the remote for the TV,” Mrs. Riedner, his wife of 38 years, said in an interview. “He might open the car window, then not know how to close it. We bought him an iPad, but he can’t learn how to use it.”
New ways of communicating have to be learned, like using gestures or making lists of things to say or do or eat, so that the person can point to them when needed. Unfortunately, sign language doesn’t work because it, too, depends on the region of the brain that is diseased.
“In some ways it’s like being a parent again. He acts in childlike ways sometimes, but he still wants to be himself, an independent adult,” Mrs. Riedner said. “Coping with the problem takes an immense amount of patience on both our parts.”
Mrs. Riedner said the center at Northwestern has been “a lifesaver for us,” a source of support, speech therapy and rehabilitation, help with practical matters like applying for Social Security disability insurance, and tips on how to minimize the inevitable frustrations that can accompany lost language skills.
Dr. Mesulam was the first in modern times to recognize the distinction between P.P.A. and other forms of dementia.
In 1975, as a newly minted neurologist at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, he became puzzled by a group of patients who seemed to know what they wanted to say but couldn’t string words together in an intelligible sequence. Their communicative problems got progressively worse, although there were no lesions apparent in their brains.
His report in 1982 on six such cases stimulated modern interest in P.P.A. As Dr. Mesulam explained in a retrospective article in the journal Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders in the fall of 2007, “The aphasia can interfere with word-finding, object naming, syntax, phonology, morphology, spelling or word comprehension. The progression occurs in the course of years rather than months, and the primary nature of the aphasia is demonstrated by showing that memory for recent events, recognition of familiar faces and objects, reasoning, and basic aspects of comportment are relatively preserved at the initial stages.”
Focus on What Remains
With no therapy available to treat the underlying disease, treatment involves determining which aspects of language are strongest, then providing speech therapy that emphasizes those areas and avoids areas in which patients are weakest, Dr. Mesulam said.
Dr. Duffy said that early intervention is important and should focus on alternative approaches to communication like using a computer, picture icons, or iPhones or iPads that have apps that can talk for a person. Family members are taught how to aid comprehension by communicating simply and clearly: telling patients only one thing at a time, reducing noise and other distractions, and avoiding multitasking.
Family members are also taught coping skills and helped to prepare for the future as the disease progresses, said Darby Morhardt, a social worker at the Northwestern center. “There’s inevitably a grieving process as patients change right before their eyes, but at the same time families want to grasp as much as possible of what remains.”
Patients often are encouraged to develop new hobbies and skills that don’t rely on communication, like woodworking, gardening, fishing, sculpting or painting. Among Northwestern’s patients is one who began breeding pigeons and another who started judging dog races.
Unfortunately, if patients live long enough, other deficits — including those involving memory and cognitive abilities, and motor problems resembling symptoms of Parkinson’s disease — often become apparent, as is now happening to Mr. Riedner.
Like Alzheimer’s disease, P.P.A. shortens life expectancy: The average age of death is 67. Ms. Morhardt said it’s important for patients and their families not to delay getting financial matters in order. Many would be wise to consult a lawyer who specializes in elder law, she said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 5, 2021
The Personal Health column on Tuesday, about primary progressive aphasia, a type of dementia that affects the brain’s language center, misspelled the hometown of Steve Riedner, who struggled with symptoms for years before the disease was correctly diagnosed. It is Schaumburg, Ill., not Schaumberg.
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