The ability to communicate is integral to what it means to be human. Our ability to speak, read, understand a movie or even laugh at a joke is something we often don’t think twice about. When the ability to communicate gets disrupted, the effects can be felt greatly by both the individual and their loved ones.
Bruce Willis’ family on Wednesday announced on Instagram that the acclaimed actor is retiring from the profession following a diagnosis of aphasia, raising questions about the communication disorder that, according to the National Aphasia Association, affects as many as 2 million Americans. It may also affect as many as 25% to 40% of stroke survivors, per the association.
If you’re not familiar with aphasia, here’s what to know.
What is aphasia?
Aphasia is the loss of the ability to communicate or use language due to brain damage brought on by injury or disease. It’s a different condition than Alzheimer’s or dementia, though neurodegenerative disease can be one cause of aphasia.
Many people develop aphasia after a stroke, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Common causes include:
- Head injury
- Brain tumor
The severity of aphasia may depend on the cause of the injury or disease in the brain. It’s currently unknown if the disease causes the “complete loss of language structure,” per Johns Hopkins, or if it interferes with how language is accessed and used.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of aphasia can vary based on the type of aphasia someone has, and where the damage has been done in their brain. Per the Mayo Clinic:
Broca or expressive aphasia is marked by someone being able to understand better than they’re able to speak. They may speak in short sentences and leave out words, and may grow frustrated at the communication gap. They may also have right-side paralysis or weakness in their body.
Comprehensive or Wernicke aphasia causes a pattern of long sentences with extra or unnecessary words added, which may be confusing to the listener. A person with comprehensive aphasia may not understand language well and may also not realize others can’t understand them.
Global aphasia is characterized by poor comprehension and difficulty forming words or sentences. This includes extensive damage to the areas of the brain which process language, and someone with this condition may have disabilities in expressing or understanding language.
Another type of aphasia, as outline by the National Aphasia Association, is primary progressive aphasia. This type may be brought on by tissue loss from a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s.
General symptoms of aphasia may include:
- Speaking in short or incomplete sentences
- Speaking or writing in sentences that don’t make sense to the listener
- Substituting words or sounds that are similar
- Using unrecognizable words
- Not understanding other people’s conversations
When to call a doctor
Because aphasia is caused by damage to the brain, it’s important to seek medical treatment if you’ve recently had a head injury. It’s also important to seek care if you’re experiencing the following symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Difficulty speaking
- Trouble understanding speech
- Difficulty with word recall
- Problems with reading or writing
Stroke is a common cause of aphasia, but it’s also an emergency that requires immediate medical attention. Get emergency help if you experience symptoms of a stroke, including numbness in the face or body (typically one side of the body), signs of confusion, trouble seeing, trouble walking and severe headache.
Is there treatment for aphasia?
Speech and language therapy may be recommended for someone diagnosed with aphasia, and sometimes symptoms of aphasia improve without treatment.
The National Aphasia Association reports that if symptoms haven’t improved within two or three months of a stroke, complete recovery from aphasia is unlikely. However, some people continue to improve over a period of months or even years.
Medications for aphasia that improve blood flow to the brain are being studied, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some have shown promise, but more research is needed before they can be recommended for treatment.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.