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Stolen Communication: The Heartbreaking Reality of Aphasia

By Skye Sherman  •   June 6, 2022

Stolen Communication: The Heartbreaking Reality of Aphasia

Most people have heard of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But did you know there is another disease in the same family as these heartbreaking conditions? It’s called aphasia. Fewer people know about aphasia but it deserves some attention and awareness, too.

Caused by brain damage, aphasia is essentially a loss of the ability to understand or express yourself using speech. But what does that mean, exactly, and what causes aphasia? If a person develops aphasia, what can be done?

In this article, we’ll take a look at the basics of aphasia and everything else you may need to know about this unfortunate condition. You will even learn about a very famous person who shocked the world with his diagnosis of aphasia.

The basics of aphasia

As Mayo Clinic explains it, “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.”

To understand aphasia, you should also understand dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, because they are linked. According to a scientific study published by Cureus, Alzheimer’s disease “is characterized by dementia in which there is an age-related decline in cognition and higher functions.” In a similar but different vein, Cureus explains, “Stroke is a cerebrovascular disorder that frequently presents in old age and is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease development.”

The study explores the fact that there is “an association between stroke development in patients with dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s-related dementia.” It’s possible that early intervention in such patients could help improve outcomes. Remember that Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible neurodegenerative disorder.

So what does all this have to do with aphasia? The link is due to the fact that aphasia typically develops as the result of a stroke or a head injury. In other words, it occurs suddenly and without warning, as the result of a traumatic event. One main example is a stroke, which can also lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Aphasia and stroke almost always go hand in hand; a large percentage of people who have a stroke end up with aphasia as a result. And believe it or not, as A-list model Hailey Bieber recently proved, even young people can suffer unexpected strokes.

However, Mayo Clinic shares that sudden onset isn’t the only way for aphasia to occur. “It can also come on gradually from a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease that causes progressive, permanent damage (degenerative).”

In other words, aphasia is a sign or result of another condition, such as a stroke or a brain tumor, and its severity depends on a number of other factors, including the cause and the extent of the brain damage.

Some of the main symptoms of aphasia are speech and communication difficulties. According to Mayo Clinic, “A person with aphasia may:

● Speak in short or incomplete sentences

● Speak in sentences that don’t make sense

● Substitute one word for another or one sound for another

● Speak unrecognizable words

● Not understand other people’s conversation

● Write sentences that don’t make sense.”

Obviously, if you develop any of the main symptoms of aphasia (difficulty with speaking, understanding speech, word recall, reading, or writing), you should seek medical attention right away. These types of symptoms are usually the result of damage to or an issue with the brain, whether it leads to aphasia or something else.

Patterns of aphasia

Aphasia can be a very sad condition that is frustrating for both the person who has aphasia and the loved ones surrounding him or her. Note that there are different patterns of aphasia, and people who have aphasia may have different strengths and weaknesses. Not all aphasia patients are the same.

The main ones are expressive aphasia (also called Broca’s or nonfluent aphasia), wherein people may understand better than they can speak; comprehensive aphasia (also called fluent or Wernicke’s aphasia), wherein people speak in long, complex sentences that don’t make sense but don’t understand others or realize that others don’t understand them; and global aphasia, wherein the person suffers from poor comprehension and difficulty forming words and sentences.

While each of these patterns of aphasia are debilitating to varying degrees, global aphasia results from extensive damage to the brain’s power of language and usually leads to severe disabilities around a person’s ability to communicate, comprehend, or express themselves.

What causes aphasia?

The most common cause of aphasia is brain damage due to a stroke (a stroke is when a blood vessel in the brain gets blocked or ruptured, leading to a loss of blood to the brain, which causes the death or damage of some of the brain’s vital cells).

Brain damage can result from any number of incidents. Some examples are a severe head injury, a tumor, an infection, or a degenerative disease of some sort. Anything that can damage the brain can lead to these conditions. Usually brain damage leads to a variety of cognitive issues, aphasia included. Sometimes it can progress into general dementia which may require treatment with drugs like Aricept (Donepezil).

But did you know that temporary episodes of aphasia are also possible?

According to Mayo Clinic, “These can be due to migraines, seizures, or a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA occurs when blood flow is temporarily blocked to an area of the brain. People who’ve had a TIA are at an increased risk of having a stroke in the near future.”

No matter what caused the aphasia, the important next step is to treat it to the best of your ability. Aphasia can dramatically decrease quality of life, but there are options for relief, improved outcomes, healing, and treatment. And if you develop aphasia as the result of a stroke, there’s a possibility that the symptoms will fade over time as your brain heals.

An article published by the University of Delaware states, “There’s a lot of mythology that the first year after your stroke that’s all you get in terms of your recovery, and we know that’s not true … Folks continue to make gains years and years and years after they’ve had a stroke.”

How to prevent or treat aphasia

Unfortunately, the only way to prevent aphasia is to prevent the conditions or injuries that cause it. But you can’t always prevent a stroke. You can only take steps to decrease your risk of stroke.

Mayo Clinic shares: “Once the cause has been addressed, the main treatment for aphasia is speech and language therapy. The person with aphasia relearns and practices language skills and learns to use other ways to communicate. Family members often participate in the process, helping the person communicate.”

In the same way, you can try to prevent a head injury that causes brain damage and leads to aphasia, but sometimes accidents happen even if you are careful. For those with Alzheimer’s disease, a doctor may recommend prescription Alzheimer’s medications. You should seek help from a medical professional if you think that you may need to be on blood pressure medications to potentially minimize your risk of stroke.

Once you develop aphasia, no matter how it occurs, the best bet is to receive treatment from a doctor to help improve cognitive and communication abilities. Depending on the severity and cause of the aphasia, the patient may never regain their full cognitive abilities back, but every situation is different.

What is life with aphasia like? How to survive and thrive

Every aphasia situation is different. The condition can vary in terms of cause, severity, outcomes, and more. Everything from your environment and amount of social support to your genetic makeup can determine what life after an aphasia diagnosis will be like.

In an article about one woman’s experience with her mother’s aphasia diagnosis, published by Alzheimer’s News Today, the writer shares: “On one of her diagnostic visits, the doctor pointed to his watch and asked my mother what it was and what its purpose was. Her response was close, but not quite right. She knew its purpose was to tell time, but referred to his watch as a clock. That is an example of aphasia. … she’d seemingly have [a] word on the tip of her tongue and couldn’t push it past her lips.”

For people with Alzheimer’s disease, aphasia comes on gradually, while stroke patients are often afflicted immediately. Still, aphasia doesn’t exhibit the same way for every patient. The article also shares: “For some, communicating in writing is laborious, as they lose the ability to write words and sentences and, in many cases, are unable to read written words. When they do write, the wrong words land on the paper.”

Aphasia can also consist of an “inability to recognize people and objects.” The writer ponders from personal experience: “Perhaps this is why my mother found it difficult to identify people in photographs. Face-to-face, she knew her children and grandchildren, but often couldn’t pick them out in photos. She’d point at the individual and ask, “Who is that?” I mistakenly thought her eyesight kept her from differentiating one person from another.”

The writer also shares that her mother often wouldn’t recognize herself in a mirror because in her mind, she thought she was much younger than she was, so when she looked in the mirror, she would ask who the old woman staring back at her was.

Life with aphasia will look different from person to person. Some may require only the support of their family, while others will require more in-depth, hands-on care from trained medical professionals. Some people will make a full or partial recovery, while others will be debilitated by aphasia for the rest of their lives. Some may require prescription medications, therapies, or aids to relieve memory loss impairments. Some may need speech and language therapy while others may need different types of cognitive support or assistance.

The most important thing for anyone with aphasia is to seek the diagnosis and recommendations of a healthcare professional. Prevention can include taking all the steps possible to prevent a stroke or other brain damage. However, other tips for living with aphasia include having a strong support network and seeking the advice of a medical professional.

Aphasia in the news: Bruce Willis’s shocking diagnosis

If you’ve ever watched famous movies and TV shows such as Die Hard, The Sixth Sense, Miami Vice, That 70’s Show, or Pulp Fiction, you know the actor Bruce Willis. This very famous and accomplished Hollywood figure shocked the world when his family revealed that he had been diagnosed with aphasia.

An article from ABC News stated, “[Bruce Willis’ wife Emma Heming] and Willis’ ex-wife Demi Moore, along with his adult daughters Rumer, 33; Scout, 30; and Tallulah, 28, said in a statement on Instagram in March that Willis was stepping away from acting to deal with the degenerative neurological condition.”

The article also states that Willis’ wife stressed the importance of taking care of herself so she could properly care for Willis and their daughters. By neglecting to take for herself, she was not able to provide the support the rest of her family needed.

An article from Express echoed this sentiment: “The news that Bruce Willis was stepping away from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia shocked his fans across the globe. Since then, the condition, which is usually caused by damage to the left side of the brain, has not only impacted the actor, but his family. Most recently, his wife Emma Heming Willis has revealed how she has ‘struggled’ to care for herself amidst caring for Bruce.”

Aphasia can be a life-altering diagnosis as someone may not be able to continue to live the same way they are used to. They may not be able to continue on with their career or interact within their relationships the same way. The condition also takes a toll on the people surrounding the person with aphasia. Hopefully, Willis and his family can help raise awareness of aphasia so that others may be able to seek early detection and pursue the best possible care options for themselves.

In addition, the article explains, “The recommended treatment for aphasia is usually speech and language therapy, which aims to restore as much of an individual’s speech as possible in order for them to be able to participate in normal everyday activities and conversations.”

This unfortunate diagnosis means life will look different for Bruce and his family, but all of his fans wish him the best and hope he has many happy life experiences ahead with his family, despite his diagnosis.

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Disclaimer:

The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.