Fact file

What is aphasia – and what does diagnosis mean for Bruce Willis?

Film star ‘stepping away’ from acting due to brain condition that affects ability to communicate

Bruce Willis has called time on his Hollywood career after being diagnosed with a rare condition that impedes the ability to speak and write.

“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,” said his family in a joint statement on Instagram. “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?

Aphasia is characterised by difficulty with language or speech and “is usually caused by damage to the left side of the brain (for example, after a stroke)”, according to the NHS website. 

The condition affects people of all ages, but is most common in those aged over 65. Willis is 67.

“In some cases”, aphasia can lead to anxiety, depression and isolation, said the health service.

In a 2017 article for The Guardian, mother-of-two Helen Harris described her slow recovery from aphasia following brain surgery. “While most people are patient and understanding, some are not,” said Harris, who died from a brain tumour in 2020 at the age of 47.

Aphasia is estimated to affect more than 350,000 people in the UK. 

In the US, a total of about two million people have the communication disorder, the National Aphasia Association reported, and around 180,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.

Symptoms

The NHS explained that Aphasia sufferers “often have trouble with the four main ways people understand and use language”: reading, listening, speaking and typing or writing. But “although aphasia affects a person’s ability to communicate, it doesn’t affect their intelligence”.

For an actor, however, aphasia could pose a huge challenge, said Johns Hopkins University cognitive scientist Brenda Rapp.

“You can imagine how frustrating it is if you can’t find words, if you can’t organise words into sentences, if you can’t get your mouth to produce the sounds you want it to produce,” Rapp told Paris-based news agency AFP.

Causes

Aphasia, is usually caused by a stroke, severe head injury, brain tumour or progressive neurological conditions such as dementia.

“It is not clear what led to Willis’ diagnosis,” Sky News reported.

Treatment

The recommended treatment for aphasia is usually speech and language therapy.

“Most people with aphasia need many hours of speech and language therapy,” said the NHS. But most “make some degree of recovery, and some recover fully”.

Sometimes aphasia improves without treatment.

Researchers are also “looking into new types of speech therapy and noninvasive methods such as a procedure that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate brain cells”, Al Jazeera reported.

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