The family of Die Hard, Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable actor Bruce Willis announced today that he is stepping away from acting due to a diagnosis of aphasia. It is not clear what brought the family to announce Willis’s condition at this time, and what could be causing it. Aphasia comes in many forms, with more than one cause. For the most part, aphasia is a treatable language and speech disorder, associated with stroke and other kinds of brain injury, and can be treated with speech, language, and cognitive therapy. However, one type of aphasia is called Primary Progressive Aphasia and looks and acts more like a form of dementia. More below.
Regardless of the cause or prognosis, we wish Bruce and his family all the best.
Aphasia is an acquired communication disorder in which there is loss or impairment of the ability to use or comprehend words. It affects different aspects of language including speaking, listening, writing, and/or reading. Aphasia is one of the most common conditions caused by brain injury (including stroke and aneurysm). More than two million people in the U.S. are currently affected by aphasia according to the National Aphasia Association, but few outside the clinical world know what it is. In fact, given its prevalence, most of us have encountered someone with aphasia but just don’t know it by name.
Nearly 180,000 Americans acquire aphasia each year, usually after stroke or other brain injury. Aphasia affects people of all ages, races, nationalities, and genders. More than 800,000 people/year have a stroke in the United States, and an estimated 1.7 million experience brain injury, both of which are common causes of aphasia. Aphasia is more prevalent than Parkinson’s, ALS, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy.
Anything that damages the language centers of the brain can cause aphasia, including:
Different components of language may be damaged more or less in each individual with aphasia, resulting in different manifestations of speech and language difficulties. Below are brief summaries of common aphasia types:
Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) is a type of frontotemporal degeneration in which symptoms begin gradually, sometimes even before age 65, and worsen over time. People with PPA can lose the ability to speak and write, and eventually, understand written or spoken language. Speech therapy can be provided throughout the course of the disease, with the goal being to maximize communication ability for as long as possible.
Many treatment options are available, often through speech-language pathologists (SLPs) in outpatient rehab centers, skilled nursing facilities, clinics, or at home. These treatments seek to help those with aphasia to reclaim their lives, and to return to work when possible. How the aphasia treatment is carried out depends on each patient’s unique circumstances. For example, intensive speech therapy may be recommended for some people, involving a number of sessions given in a shorter period of time. For others, shorter and less intensive sessions may be recommended.
For primary progressive aphasia, although it is degenerative, it does not mean the end of communication. A diagnosis can be the first step to identifying ways to regain or maintain communication abilities for as long as possible. Speech-language pathologists are the front line in the treatment of this kind of aphasia also. And like other forms of aphasia, a science-based online app like Constant Therapy can help maintain speech and language skills.
With news of Bruce Willis’ diagnosis, several media outlets reached out to one of Constant Therapy’s founding scientists, Dr. Swathi Kiran, who is also the director of the Aphasia Research Lab at Boston University. Here is some of what she said: