John Travolta: Dyslexia or Dementia?

During the March 5 Academy Awards show, John Travolta took the stage and introduced Idina Menzel, but as he read her name from the teleprompter, he said “Adele Dazeem” instead. An estimated 43 million people saw the flub, and the media has been mocking him relentlessly ever since, especially since he attended rehearsals.

Menzel, who acted in “Rent” onstage and on-screen in “Wicked,” recently became a household name with her hit song,”Let It Go,” from the animated film “Frozen.”

The incident placed dyslexia in the spotlight as the possible reason for Travolta’s “oops” moment. Dyslexia is a life-long condition, characterized by difficulties in reading, writing, and spelling. Experts explain that dyslectics have difficulty in accurately interpreting the printed word and in matching the words with their appropriate sounds.

However, dyslexia may not be the culprit after all. Members of the media also mentioned the possibility of aphasia. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, aphasia is a disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that contain language. Aphasia can cause problems with spoken and written language, and some people with aphasia have trouble using words and sentences. A person with mild aphasia may have trouble finding the words (called “anomia”) to express an idea or explain himself/herself, similar to having a word “on the tip of your tongue.”

Aphasia is sometimes the result of a stroke, a severe head injury, or other types of cognitive problems, such as memory loss or confusion. Sometimes temporary episodes of aphasia can occur, which can be due to migraines or seizures.

What if not being able to recognize someone famous was more than a “tip-of-the-tongue” moment? Primary progressive aphasia is a form of dementia typically found in people younger than 65 that affects communication and language function, such as the ability to express thoughts or find the correct word. Although media sources have not indicated that Travolta has any type of dementia, the incident at the Academy Awards calls attention to aphasia, including primary progressive aphasia.

Would you be able to recognize the names and faces of famous people, such as Oprah, Bill Gates or John F. Kennedy? In research published in the journal “Neurology,” scientists developed a test involving 30 people, ages 40-65, who have primary progressive aphasia, and a group of 27 people without dementia. All were asked to identify photos of famous faces, likely to be known by 40-60 year-old Americans, by name or, if they couldn’t name them, to provide at least two relevant details about them.

Brain scans taken during the exam showed those who had trouble naming faces had deterioration in the left and right temporal lobe of the brain. Researchers found that those with dementia were only able to name the faces 46% of the time and provide some details 79% of the time, while those without dementia averaged 93% and 97% respectively.

Early-onset dementia can be difficult to diagnose because there are many different types of dementia with overlapping symptoms that are sometimes attributed to normal lifestyle factors like stress. In Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, about 4% of the estimated 5 million cases in the U.S. are people in their 40s and 50s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

As for Travolta, it is unknown whether he might have dyslexia, aphasia, or something else entirely, or whether it was just a one-time “oops” moment. 

Have you or a family member been having “oops” moments? If these types of “oops” moments happen regularly, it may be time to see a neurologist or other specialist for a screening and possible diagnosis.  Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Dementia Planning Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C., we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones.  If you have a loved one who is suffering from dementia, we can help you prepare for your future financial and long-term care needs.  We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax or 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg to make an appointment for a consultation.



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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.


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