What is aphasia? Bruce Willis’ diagnosis, explained

On Wednesday, Bruce Willis’ family announced that he will be taking a step back from his career of almost 45 years due to an aphasia diagnosis. Aphasia is a medical condition that leaves patients struggling to verbally communicate.

According to the Canada-based Aphasia Institute, aphasia is a language problem that masks a person’s inherent competence. Someone with aphasia might have trouble communicating opinions, feelings, thoughts and emotions, leading to them speaking in short sentences that are difficult or impossible to understand.

However, research shows that people with aphasia know what is going on.

“Even when the aphasia is severe, many are capable of participating in decisions that pertain to them if the appropriate support is provided,” the Aphasia institute says. “Similar to giving a wheelchair or walker to someone who can’t walk.”

These issues are related to brain damage in the left side of the brain, which controls language, Johns Hopkins explains.

Although the cause of Willis’ aphasia is unclear, Mayo Clinic says that aphasia can be caused by a stroke, head injury, a brain tumor or a disease.

While potential drug therapies are being tested, the current treatment options are limited. Most patients are advised to undergo language and speech rehabilitation, that focus on restoring as much language as possible and finding alternative methods to communicate.

“Recovery of language skills is usually a relatively slow process,” Mayo Clinic says. “Although most people make significant progress, few people regain full pre-injury communication levels.”

Willis’ daughter said the condition “is affecting his cognitive ability” in an Instagram post, although experts believe aphasia is more correctly classified as a language disorder than a cognitive sickness.

“This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support,” Willis’ family said in a statement.

“We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him.”

According to the Aphasia Institute, there are over 100,000 Canadians living with aphasia today and one in three stroke survivors are diagnosed with aphasia.

The number of people with this disorder is expected to increase significantly as the population ages.

The National Aphasia Association says that more people have aphasia than have many other common conditions, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or muscular dystrophy.

About one third (225,000) of annual strokes result in aphasia, they say.

Bruce Willis is best known for his starring role as John McClane in the “Die Hard” action franchise. As of 2022, films featuring Willis have grossed over US$5 billion worldwide, making him one of the highest-grossing actors in the world.

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