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Sharp Health News

What is aphasia?

April 27, 2022

Illustrated depiction of aphasia

Recently, the family of Bruce Willis announced the actor — famous for the TV show “Moonlighting” and movies including “Die Hard” and “The Sixth Sense” — was “stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him” after receiving a diagnosis of aphasia. The condition is a brain disorder that impairs the ability to speak, understand others, read and write.

According to the National Aphasia Association, the most common cause of aphasia is stroke, but it can also be the result of a tumor, traumatic brain injury or other neurological conditions. Approximately 180,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the condition each year. Aphasia is most diagnosed in older adults, but it can affect anyone, including children.

“Aphasia basically impacts a person’s communication,” says Dr. Yu Dennis Cheng, a board-certified neurologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “There are two types of aphasia. The first affects a person’s fluency of speech and the second is related to understanding speech.”

While aphasia affects the area of the brain responsible for language, it does not affect a person’s intelligence. Someone with aphasia will have difficulty retrieving words, but it is the ability to access the language for certain thoughts — rather than the thoughts themselves — that is disrupted.

Treatment of aphasia depends on its cause
While some forms of aphasia are difficult to treat, aphasia following a brain injury can be treated with speech-language therapy, which can help improve communication skills. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports language and communication abilities can improve over many years.

According to Dr. Cheng, the cause of the brain injury, the area of the brain that was damaged, the extent of the damage, and a person’s age and overall health will affect treatment and recovery.

“Treatment mainly depends on the reason for the aphasia,” Dr. Cheng says. “For instance, if a patient has Alzheimer’s disease, it will be very difficult to treat. However, if they have a tumor, the symptoms can improve by removing the tumor.”

Additional forms of treatment include therapy to improve a person’s ability to communicate by helping them use their remaining language abilities, restore language abilities, and learn other ways of communicating. This can include the use of gestures, images and speech-generating applications on digital devices.

The importance of family involvement
The NIH strongly recommends that family members become involved in a loved one’s treatment to learn the best way to communicate with one another and to encourage communication. A normal conversational manner appropriate for an adult should be used, and the person with aphasia should be included in conversations as they were prior to their aphasia symptoms or diagnosis.

Additional tips for loved ones of an individual with aphasia include:

  • Participating in therapy sessions, if possible
  • Simplifying language by using short, uncomplicated sentences
  • Repeating or writing down words to clarify meaning as needed
  • Minimizing distractions, such as a loud radio or TV, when communicating
  • Asking for and valuing their opinion, especially regarding family matters
  • Encouraging any type of communication, whether it is speech, gestures or drawing
  • Avoiding correcting their speech and allowing them plenty of time to talk
  • Helping them become involved outside the home, such as by joining support groups

Willis’ loved ones noted that they will be following this guidance. In a statement released by several family members, they shared that while the diagnosis has been challenging, they plan on “moving through this as a strong family unit.”

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