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What is Aphasia? Here’s What You Need to Know

If you’ve been tuning into the news lately you’ve probably heard about actor Bruce Willis’ recent diagnosis of aphasia. Compared to other conditions, aphasia is one that, while many people may have heard of it, few have a clear understanding of what it is, who gets it and how it impacts quality of life.

What exactly is aphasia?

The official definition, according to the Mayo Clinic is as follows:

Aphasia is a condition that affects your ability to communicate. It can affect your speech, as well as the way you write and understand both spoken and written language.

In the U.S. aphasia currently affects over two million people, with over 180,000 being diagnosed each year.

There are 3 kinds of aphasia:

  • Expressive: Also referred to as nonfluent aphasia, wherein people may clearly understand what someone is saying, but struggle to find the correct words to respond. They may talk in a sort of “short-hand” as a result.
  • Comprehensive: Also referred to a fluent aphasia, the individual can speak in full sentences, but it is more of a “word soup” with words that make no sense or long sentences with unnecessary words. They are often unaware that others don’t understand what they’re saying.
  • Global: This is the inability to both comprehend and to respond verbally. It typically results from extensive brain damage, particularly to the areas of the brain that govern language.

The primary causes of aphasia, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine are:

  • Stroke
  • Head injury
  • Brain tumor
  • Infection
  • Dementia

What is the link between aphasia and dementia?

According to the National Aphasia Association, while most cases of aphasia are caused by stroke or other severe brain injury, one type of aphasia, called primary progressive aphasia, results from degeneration of brain tissue in the areas of the brain related to speech and language.

This is the kind of damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease or Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration. It can also be one of the earliest signs of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, often preceding the memory loss and personality changes normally associated with dementias.

How is aphasia treated?

Much depends upon the cause of the problem. It is important that any associated risks and/or issues can be addressed first. In all cases, however, speech and language therapy will be needed.

This is a process to help the individual with aphasia re-learn language skills and identify other ways of communicating to compensate for language loss. This is where family members can be of help, working alongside a licensed therapist.

At our Anthem Memory Care communities our residents with speech and language challenges work with licensed speech therapists to help them retain as much of their verbal and comprehensive capabilities as possible and for as long as possible.

Of course, we all wish Bruce Willis and his family all the best as they grapple with his diagnosis and begin the arduous work of rehabilitation and ongoing therapy. And with better understanding of the condition and awareness of its symptoms and potential underlying causes, we can begin to make headway into more aggressive treatments and preventative strategies.