The cognitive disorder that Bruce Willis’ family said Wednesday has effectively ended his acting career is likely a rarer form of a neurodegenerative condition that affects less than 200,000 people in the U.S., one expert told The Daily Beast.
The 67-year-old Die Hard actor’s family wrote on Instagram Wednesday that Willis, 67, has been diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder caused by brain damage, and he would be “stepping away” from acting.
Aphasia is a language disorder—not necessarily a speech disorder—that affects about 1 million people in the U.S. with 180,000 diagnosed each year.
“It impacts all language modalities [like] listening, reading, speaking, and writing,” Kathryn Borio, a speech-language pathologist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago who specializes in aphasia, told The Daily Beast. “A hallmark symptom is this sort of ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon where I know the word but can’t find it.”
Aphasia is mostly caused by a stroke affecting areas in the brain that control speech and language. This sort of damage to the brain impacts an individual’s ability to retrieve words or organize their words into sentences. In rarer instances, brain damage can be caused by a neurodegenerative condition that progressively worsens over time.
“The family’s statement indicating he was having trouble with his cognition does point to an idea that perhaps it’s primary progressive aphasia, which is less common, affecting less than 200,000 people in the U.S.,” Borio said.
While some people with mild aphasia may bounce back without treatment, it’s not the case for many.
We really do believe that with therapy—with the help of a speech therapist, occupational therapist—patients can improve.Kathryn Borio, Speech Language Pathologist
“I’m not treating Bruce, but if I was, I would be working with him and his family to train him how to communicate, giving him some tools to access words a bit easier.” She said the tools don’t need to be anything fancy—they can be as simple as an iPhone or even using social media.
It’s important to realize, just because someone with aphasia has trouble communicating doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent, Borio emphasized. “It’s not a loss of intelligence. Someone with aphasia is still an intelligent person that thinks the same way, their thoughts are the same, but their ability to communicate their thoughts becomes more difficult.”
“I feel that the Willis family made a really brave choice by using the word aphasia by name,” she said. “As a clinician, it means a lot when a family member who is in the public realm uses their platform to help us advocate for patients. We can hopefully advance science and advance the care of people living with aphasia.”