What is aphasia? Bruce Willis struggles with language loss sheds light on disorder with many causes

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CHICAGO — It would be easy to think of Bruce Willis as indestructible; after all, that’s the image the movie star has cultivated on the big screen for so many years.

So it came as a shock to many when Willis’ ex-wife Demi Moore announced on Instagram on behalf of the entire family that he was suffering from a loss of language function known as aphasia.

READ MORE: Bruce Willis ‘steps’ out of acting career after being diagnosed with aphasia, family says

“It’s a language disorder or a loss of language. Someone with aphasia will have trouble communicating verbally,” explains Michelle Armor, program leader at the Northwestern Medicine Aphasia Center in Marianjoy.

“You lose your ability to read. You lose your ability to understand spoken word, and you may lose your ability to write or speak,” says Dr. Michael Chen, professor of neurosurgery at Rush University Medical Center.

A stroke, tumor, head injury, or other damage to the language centers of the brain can cause aphasia. A brain infection or Alzheimer’s disease can cause it. The National Aphasia Association estimates that 2 million Americans are affected and nearly 180,000 get the condition each year.

“Whatever happens, it has a devastating impact on the person’s life,” Armor said. “The inability to communicate can affect our social relationships, our personal relationships with family”

Doctors say that aphasia is a symptom, not a diagnosis, and that it comes in varying degrees of severity.

“It’s normal to get aphasia after a stroke because that’s one of the most common types of brain disease, but basically any type of brain disease, if it affects the language networks in the brain it can cause aphasia,” said Dr. Joseph Moore, professor of psychiatry at UI Health.
But while aphasia affects a person’s ability to process language, it doesn’t affect their intelligence. Researchers say that in some cases it can enhance other talents through treatment.

“There’s so much in the brain that we can enjoy and live in a way that you can forget about language altogether,” said Borna Bonakdarpour, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University.

Some people improve dramatically in a few months. Others may need to find other ways to communicate. Speech and language therapy can help, but any treatment will depend entirely on the cause of the aphasia.

Bonakdarpour reminded those affected by aphasia that even if there is no cure yet, there is treatment and with that hope.

“We will find the joy even in the midst of all the negative aspects of a condition,” he said.

Both experts who have worked to treat, connect and ultimately cure aphasia patients said the Willis family’s statement is key to their work.

“The more people know about it, the more support all individuals with aphasia can get, which is so important,” Armor said.

Details of the cause of Willis’ condition were not made public.

In the social media statement, Moore said: “We are going through this as a strong family unit and wanted to bring in his fans because we know how much he means to you, just like you do to him. As Bruce always says, ‘Live it up’ and together we plan to do that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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