- Aphasia is a language disorder that makes communicating and understanding difficult for 2 million Americans
- There are two types of aphasia: the more common acquired aphasia follows stroke or trauma; this is the kind the actor Bruce Willis has
- Treatment for aphasia involves speech-language therapy to help restore people’s language skills or develop tools to compensate for skills that have been lost
Aphasia is a language disorder that typically results from an injury to the brain. It affects the ability to understand and express language, both written and spoken.
That means reading, writing, speaking and listening are all impaired.
About 180,000 Americans are diagnosed with aphasia every year, according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA). Acquired aphasia, the most common type of the disorder, can result from:
- Traumatic brain injury
- Brain infections, tumors or surgery
- Parkinson’s disease and certain forms of dementia
While aphasia often co-occurs with other conditions, it does not affect other cognitive skills like memory or executive function on its own.
Aphasia is in the spotlight right now following the news that actor Bruce Willis is retiring from acting after living with the progressive condition for some time.
In response to that news, Carilion Clinic speech-language pathologists Stephanie Jackson and Lauren Lawson spoke with WFXR about the challenges people with aphasia and their loved ones face.
Signs of Aphasia
People with aphasia have trouble talking, understanding, reading and writing. Some signs include:
- Having trouble thinking of the words you want to say
- Thinking that you have the right word, but saying a different one, like “chair” instead of “fork”
- Using made-up or turned-around words, like “wish dasher” instead of “dishwasher”
- Misunderstanding what others say, especially with fast speech or longer sentences
- Having trouble understanding others in groups or loud places
- Not getting jokes
- Having trouble understanding what you’re reading, whether in a book or on a computer screen
- Finding forms difficult to understand
- Being unable to put complete sentences together
- Misspelling words you “know”
- Having trouble with math or telling time
Reduce Your Risk
The best way to reduce your risk of acquiring aphasia is to reduce your risk of stroke by:
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Quitting tobacco in all forms
- Knowing your blood pressure and working on keeping it low
- Getting at least 20 minutes of active exercise a day
- Scheduling a wellness checkup at least once a year
Reducing the risk of head trauma is also important:
- Take steps to minimize the risk of falls at home
- Wear a helmet when riding a bike, scooter or motorcycle
Acquired aphasia is treatable! Interventions can be either:
- Restorative, aimed at improving or restoring function
- Compensatory, aimed at developing other skills to compensate for what's been lost
The sooner you begin treatment for aphasia, the better your chances for a positive outcome. If you or a loved one begin to notice changes over time in the ability to communicate or understand language, reach out to your primary care provider for a referral to a speech-language pathologist.
Of course, if you or a loved one experience sudden changes of any kind in communication or comprehension, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Sudden changes can be a sign of stroke.
Aphasia Treatment at Carilion
Carilion Clinic has speech language pathologists (SLPs) available to help you or your loved one across the continuum of care.
"A team of SLPs at Roanoke Community Hospital's inpatient rehab offer intensive speech and language therapy as part of a multidisciplinary team," said Stephanie, "and SLPs are available during acute care stays at any of our hospitals to aid you in the beginning days of your care."
That support continues after you return home through the skilled therapies offered by Carilion Clinic Home Care.
"Finally, as you begin to approach your way out of speech and language therapy, we have multiple outpatient locations where you can access a speech language pathologist," said Stephanie.
Resources for Patients and Caregivers
For those living with aphasia and their caregivers, Stephanie recommends the Aphasia Recovery Connection.
“ARC is an amazing resource for caregivers of individuals with aphasia, as well as individuals themselves,” she said. The organization also has a private Facebook group that ARC staff participate in.
For more information about aphasia, see ASHA’s response to the news about Bruce Willis.
ASHA also recommends these sites:
And closer to home, your primary care provider is your first resource. Schedule a screening today if you have concerns, and even if you don’t. If you’re like many people, you haven’t seen your physician since before COVID!