The WellSpan Spotlight

Health and wellness

What is aphasia? WellSpan neurologist explains Bruce Willis' disorder

What is aphasia? WellSpan neurologist explains Bruce Willis' disorder

Actor Bruce Willis' family revealed this week that the star of Hollywood blockbusters including the "Die Hard" franchise and "The Sixth Sense" is among 2 million Americans who have a communication disorder called aphasia. 

WellSpan neurologist Dr. Carolina Harbert said, "Aphasia impacts the ability of people to communicate as well as understand what others are saying. We all have moments where we forget words or do not listen to others carefully. People with aphasia have serious difficulties that hinder their day-to-day lives." 

People who are concerned about their ability to communicate should see their physician, Harbert said. Treatment is available. 

Here are some basic facts about this disorder. 

What causes aphasia? 

Aphasia is a disorder that results from damage to portions of the brain that are responsible for language. Aphasia usually occurs suddenly, often following a stroke or head injury, but it may also develop slowly, as the result of a brain tumor or a progressive neurological disease, such as Alzheimer's disease. Most people who have aphasia are middle-aged or older, but anyone can acquire it, including young children.  

What are the signs of aphasia? 

The disorder impairs the way you talk and the way you understand language, impacting reading as well as writing.  People with aphasia often can't think of the words they want to say, say the wrong word, use made-up words, or have a hard time saying sentences. They may not understand what others are saying as well, particularly nuanced language such as humor or jokes or interactions in group conversations. They may have difficulty with tasks such as reading, writing, doing math and telling time. 

How is aphasia diagnosed? 

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) study may be used to diagnose and identify the location of a brain injury. Other tests can gauge the person's ability to engage in conversation, understand words, read, and write. 

How is aphasia treated? 

Speech therapy is often used to help patients regain their ability to communicate. The level of success may include the area of the brain that has been damaged, the extent of the damage, and the person's age and overall health. 

Speech therapy seeks to help people use their remaining language abilities as best as they can. Therapists also can teach people other ways to communicate, using gestures, pictures, or electronic devices.  

Family involvement is vital because it enables family members to learn the best way to communicate with their loved one.