As reported by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), while aphasia is a newsworthy event in the lives of more than 2 million Americans, it’s not a condition that most people understand unless they had a friend or family member experience it.
The difficult news of actor Bruce Willis’ aphasia diagnosis has made international headlines and offers an opportunity for the public to learn more about what aphasia is, and—maybe even more importantly—what it isn’t.
Aphasia is a change in language because of a change in the brain and affects both understanding and expression. It can make it difficult to speak, write, listen, and read. The various types of aphasia depend on the different parts of the brain affected and the reason for the neural change. Aphasia is most often caused by a sudden event, like a stroke or traumatic brain injury. It is a language issue, so a person might experience challenges getting their thoughts and ideas across or understanding someone else’s words, but they’re still the same person they were before the diagnosis. Aphasia does not affect cognitive ability.
For SLPs intervening with neurodegenerative communication disorders like primary progressive aphasia, a patient’s inevitable decline becomes part of treatment.
A different type, called primary progressive aphasia (PPA), can occur when someone has a degenerative brain disease—such as dementia—which causes changes in word-finding ability, recall, and cognitive skills. Aphasia can range from subtle problems in thinking of words to a near total inability to talk.
Aphasia is not hopeless. With the help of rehabilitation intervention provided by a speech-language pathologist people with aphasia from a stroke or other brain injury improve in big and small ways, as long as their brain remains healthy. Time, activity, and treatment help. SLPs partner with people with aphasia and their families to improve communication skills and develop strategies to support their communication strengths.
For people with primary progressive aphasia, their brains will continue to change over time and communication will become more difficult as this happens. SLPs help people and their families plan for future challenges and develop strategies for each stage in someone’s progression.