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What is aphasia? Bruce Willis' condition explained

There are at least 2 million people in the U.S. with the disorder.
/ Source: TODAY

The announcement that actor Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with aphasia is putting a spotlight on the condition — a disorder that can make it hard for a person to communicate.

“As a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” read a note posted on his daughter Rumer Willis’ Instagram account and signed by other family members.

“As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.”

What is aphasia?

It happens when there is damage to portions of the brain responsible for language, usually in the left hemisphere, affecting a person’s ability to produce and understand speech, as well as the ability to read and write, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

It can happen suddenly — after a stroke, head injury or gunshot wound, for example — but may also develop slowly if there is a brain tumor, infection or a progressive neurological disease.

Stroke is the most common cause of aphasia, affecting up to 40% of stroke survivors, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association noted.

The degree to which it impacts a person can range from mild to severe. There are at least 2 million people in the U.S. with the condition, according to the National Aphasia Association. It does not affect intelligence, but the ability to access ideas and thoughts through language, it emphasized.

What are the types of aphasia?

There are two broad categories:

Fluent — where patients can speak, but the speech they produce often has no meaning, with long sentences that can contain made-up or unnecessary words. “Sentences do not hang together and irrelevant words intrude-sometimes to the point of jargon,” the National Aphasia Association noted. Patients usually aren’t aware of their mistakes and have a hard time understanding what other people say.

Nonfluent — where patients understand speech and know what they want to say, but have trouble saying it. The formation of sounds is often “laborious and clumsy,” according to the association, and patients often speak in short phrases that omit small words like “is,” “and” and “the.” Gabrielle Giffords, the former Congresswoman who was shot in the head outside a Tucson, Arizona, grocery store in 2011, has this form of aphasia. Patients like her can often sing even though they have lost so much of their access to language.

Willis’ family has not specified which type of aphasia he has.

Related: This is what it’s like to have aphasia and struggle to find the words

How is aphasia diagnosed?

Doctors are usually first to recognize it and can test a patient’s ability to carry on a conversation and follow commands. A specialist can assess any difficulties in more detail.

If there is a brain injury, an MRI or CT scan confirm it.

How is aphasia treated?

Depending on the extent and cause of the brain injury, speech-language therapy can help. There is no cure, though most people improve over time.

Family members are key in helping patients improve their ability to communicate. They’re urged to use short, uncomplicated sentences; include their loved one in conversations; avoid correcting the person’s speech and allow them lots of time to talk.