Preserving legacy: Renowned economist, speaker battles disease

Published: Friday, Oct. 26 2012 12:06 a.m. MDT

Lynnette Thredgold leans on her husband, Jeff, at their Farmington home on Oct. 5. In July 2012, Jeff was diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration. This is a neurodegenerative disease that has affected Jeff's ability to be an economist and professional speaker.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The banner on the website introducing him as a world-class economist and national speaker reads "Who is Jeff Thredgold?"

It's a question with new nuance. Thredgold, well-known nationally and in his native Utah for his optimism and warm humor, as well as the ability to charm a crowd while explaining complex money issues, wrestles with a neurodegenerative disease that is stealing his future.

His family struggles with how to survive his diagnosis and preserve his legacy.

Doctors say Thredgold, 61, has behavior-variant frontotemporal dementia. The disease is shrinking the frontal lobes of his brain, responsible for decision-making and behavior. After that, it will attack his temporal lobes, the seat of emotion and language.

The diagnosis and its aftermath have created family rifts and financial problems. But when you ask what is happening to him, there are two views.

His view

On a recent sunny October afternoon, Thredgold shuffles down the stairs in his Farmington home, his sneakered feet waging a small fashion war with his crisp slacks. He recognizes a reporter who interviewed him often about a fumbling economy. But his speech pacing is off and his focus wanders.

He knows his diagnosis, he says. He just doesn't believe it. Or maybe he does, a little. If it's true, he adds, it's frightening. "But I don't see any differences and I feel great. They tell a different story."

Here, he points to his wife Lynnette and daughter Taylor, sitting a few feet away. "Are you going to tell their version or mine?"

The reporter promises to tell both.

When he says he had three small heart attacks, his wife gently shakes her head. They were anxiety attacks, she says, part of the illness. He has retired, closing the office he maintained for many years. He's no longer writing The Tea Leaf, his economic forecast. He had just signed with a prestigious speaking bureau and he hopes to have more engagements, but the bureau asked him to tell audiences he has been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder. He doesn't much like that idea. Instead, he says, he'll focus on writing his fifth book. And he wants to raise awareness of frontotemporal degeneration.

He pauses to tell a funny, but mildly off-color joke. With FTD, the lines of decorum get murky.

In April, he began acting strange, his wife and daughter say, even asking them to try beverages before he'd drink them. Something was off. He came home from giving a speech in April to find his wife, his six kids and their five spouses (one of his children is single) gathered for "an intervention." They took him to the hospital. It felt to him more like an abduction.

A different view

It started months before. Taylor Thredgold had been managing her dad's office at Thredgold Economic Associates for more than two years when he became increasingly agitated and irritable. It was shocking to the young woman who had never, in her 21 years, heard a cross word from her dad. "He was a jokester. He never yelled at me before. Not ever," she says earnestly.

It was an early — but not the first — sign of trouble. A couple of months before that, Jeff and Lynnette Thredgold, happily married more than a quarter century, began having marital problems. It was a shock. He doted on his wife and built a small concert stage in their home so she could woo guests with her violin skills. Proud to be the only economist to have earned the international Certified Speaking Professional designation, he hated to be away from her so much that he crafted a conference presentation called Money & Music that wed his speeches to her violin mastery. Yet there he was, tuning her out, making decisions without her, arguing. She got so frustrated that she temporarily left him.

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