What is aphasia? Bruce Willis’ announcement brings awareness to the disorder

Reporter: Amy Oshier
Published: Updated:
FILE – Actor Bruce Willis appears at the premiere of “Glass” in New York on Jan. 15, 2019. Wills is stepping away from acting after a diagnosis of aphasia, a condition that causes the loss of the ability to understand or express speech, his family announced Wednesday. In a statement posted on Willis’ Instagram page, the 67-year-old actor’s family said Willis was recently diagnosed with aphasia and that it is impacting his cognitive abilities. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

The announcement that actor Bruce Willis is retiring from acting brought aphasia, a little-known brain disorder, into the public eye.

The National Aphasia Association says almost 85 percent of Americans have never heard the term.

In reality, about two million people in this country will be diagnosed with it this year alone.

Willis is a bona fide Hollywood legend, so it came as a shock when his family announced on social media that he had aphasia.

It’s a tough diagnosis that impacts the brain and the very way we produce and understand language.

Lee Health neurologist Dr. William Carracino explained, “There is a section of the brain that basically serves speech and language. And the way people get this is some sort of process that affects that particular area. It’s usually from some sort of damage or destructive lesion. Most commonly we see it with stroke. But you can have tumors, you can have vascular malformations in that area. Even focal infections within the brain can cause this in a destructive fashion. You can also see aphasia, from seizures.”

Dr. Carracino describes aphasia as a broad-spectrum disorder, that can display in several forms. “In the expressive type of aphasia, people have difficulty in making intelligible language, but they can generally understand other people speaking to them. In receptive aphasia, people can’t understand what people are saying, but they can make fluent speech, the fluent speech may be nonsensical, and may not be understandable, but the speech output pattern is more normal.”

In cases of a stroke, a patient may be able to recover some abilities through intensive speech therapy. But the direst form of aphasia gets progressively worse with no chance of improvement.

“We put primary progressive aphasia in a neurodegenerative category, which is much like Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Carracino added.

While his work speaks for itself, Willis now has the additional role of sparking conversation and awareness.

The Willis family hasn’t said much about the nature of his condition, other than it is impacting his cognitive abilities.

In Southwest Florida, there are aphasia groups and speech therapists who work with this condition.

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