If you have ever traveled to a country where you don’t speak the language, where everything from deciphering street signs to communicating with locals feels impossible, you have some sense of what living with aphasia can be like.
The language disorder affects a person’s ability to understand or produce written or spoken words, but doesn’t affect intelligence. Aphasia comes in different forms and levels of severity. More than two million Americans experience it, according to the National Aphasia Association.
“Their thoughts are the same, the personality is the same, they just can’t communicate,” says Kathryn Borio, a speech-language pathologist who works with aphasia patients at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago.
On Wednesday, the family of actor Bruce Willis announced he would be stepping away from the profession following his diagnosis, which, the family said, “is impacting his cognitive abilities.” The news prompted questions about the condition, and the disorder was Google’s top trending search with more than 10 million searches as of the evening of March 30.
Struggling to find a word is common in older age, but speech-language pathologists say there is a difference between average forgetfulness and aphasia symptoms. If you notice yourself or a loved one mixing words, using the wrong word, beginning a sentence and being unable to finish it, it is a good idea to seek the advice of a primary-care doctor or neurologist.
“We tend to ask: Is it annoying, or is it truly limiting?” Mrs. Borio says.
Some cases of aphasia develop and worsen slowly over time, also known as primary progressive aphasia. Those patients may not have shown other symptoms before they start experiencing an inability to retrieve words, Dr. Botha says. They are often accompanied by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which can result in other symptoms such as memory loss. These cases are more common among men and those between 50 and 70 years old, Mrs. Borio says.
The more common onset of aphasia occurs as the result of a stroke or other brain injury. Approximately a quarter of people who have strokes in the U.S. experience aphasia, according to the NAA. In some of these cases, symptoms of aphasia may improve or even resolve over time.
People with symptoms are often reluctant to seek medical attention, says Darlene Williamson, president of the NAA, out of shame associated with being unable to call up words or fear of receiving a diagnosis. The sooner the disorder is diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated, though there is no cure, Ms. Williamson says.
If they jump in and get engaged with a good neurologist who will then hopefully and presumably refer them to a good speech-language pathologist, there is a lot that can be done to maintain speech and set the person up for strategies as their speech changeKathryn Borio, Speech Language Pathologist
“If they jump in and get engaged with a good neurologist who will then hopefully and presumably refer them to a good speech-language pathologist, there is a lot that can be done to maintain speech and set the person up for strategies as their speech changes,” she says.