The world learned Wednesday that Hollywood legend Bruce Willis, 67, was retiring due to his diagnosis of aphasia, a potentially devastating illness that causes a person to lose their communication skills.
The Willis family announced that the condition would cause the Die Hard star to step away “from the career that has meant so much to him.”
About one million Americans have this condition, the National Institute of Health reports, and about 180,000 people are diagnosed each year.
It can manifest itself in multiple ways and is often the result of a head injury, stroke, tumor, or other brain impairment.
Aphasia can also be devastating: Experts say it causes depression in more than a third of cases, can lead to personality changes and even alienate friends and family from the affected person.
Other famous examples of aphasia include former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords and Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke.
‘Imagine being left in a country where you don’t speak the language: you can’t understand, read, write or speak. It would affect all your interactions – this is what it means to have aphasia,” Darlene Williamson, president of the aphasia association, told DailyMail.com.
While it is impossible to say in Willis’ case in particular how drastically the disease has affected him and his behavior, Williamson reports that it can often be devastating for patients.
“The consequences of living with a language disability can alter a person’s behavior and outlook on life,” Williamson said.
“Approximately 35 percent of people with aphasia experience some form of depression.”
The cause of the condition, which is usually some type of traumatic brain injury or stroke, can cause massive personality changes.
‘[Aphasia is] difficulty with language that arises from some type of injury to the brain. The most common source is stroke… but it could come from any other type of damage,” Dr Brenda Rapp, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins University, told DailyMail.com.
Certain infections that affect the language centers of the brain can also lead to the formation of aphasia, along with cognitive decline and decline associated with dementia.
This condition can make it very difficult for an actor like Willis to continue his career, as the simple process of saying the lines can become a challenge.
“It would be difficult for sure,” Williamson said of trying to continue acting while suffering from the condition.
‘Aphasia affects language comprehension, speech, as well as reading and writing. There are different levels of severity, which would be another determining factor. It may not be impossible, but taking action would require additional adaptations.
Dr Rapp said that despite the communication breakdowns caused by the condition, people who suffer from it still have the same thoughts and are internally the same person. While the experience may be alienating, loved ones should remember that the person has not changed. Pictured: Willis with family and friends after a ‘roast’ event in 2018
There are four common types of aphasia that make up the vast majority of cases: fluent, often called Wernicke’s; not fluid, known as Drill Bit; anomic; and Primary Progressive Aphasia.
Rapp explained that there are different forms of the condition because each represents a different type of breakdown in the communication process.
Whether it is the ability to translate thoughts into appropriate words, the ability to physically say words, or the ability to interpret and understand the speech of others, every part of communication is a complex process and even mild brain damage can cause problems.
While the condition causes communication breakdowns, Rapp notes that the person themselves remains the same.
Their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings toward their loved ones remain, even if it can be frustrating and alienating for both the aphasia patient and those around them to deal with this condition.
Willis’ family did not reveal what type he was dealing with, how severe the case was, or what the underlying cause was found for the condition.
According to the stroke association, A group based in the United Kingdom, those with Wernicke’s aphasia have the ability to string together long sentences of words, but they often say things in a way that does not make sense, or even use made-up words.
They will also suffer from reading and writing problems and may have trouble understanding clear verbal communication to them.
An example used by Rapp is that a person may misinterpret the phrase “John kicked the dog.”
Dr. Brenda Rapp, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins University, explains that aphasia is usually caused by a stroke and can manifest itself in many different ways.
While the average person would clearly understand who kicked who in that scenario, a person facing this type of condition may have difficulty determining whether John or the dog was the person who kicked.
Broca’s aphasia often causes a person to forget words or put together a proper string of words even when their brain can fully understand what they want to say.
A person suffering from this type of condition will often use short, simple sentences to convey speech, as they sometimes cannot correctly say what they want.
The Stroke Association says these sentences are usually around four words or less.
A person suffering from Broca’s aphasia will also have difficulty with writing, but their reading ability will not be affected.
Someone who suffers from anomic aphasia may have difficulty finding specific verbs and nouns they need to express their point of view and will speak very vaguely.
This can also translate into their writing, where they simply will not be able to generate the correct words needed to say what they would like to say.
Primary progressive aphasia Aphasia impairs a person’s ability to communicate in virtually every sense.
A person suffering from this version of the disease will have problems speaking, reading and writing.
Their ability to process and understand someone speaking to them is also impaired.
Doctors can often detect aphasia using an MRI or CT scan and will be able to identify the exact part of the brain that is causing the problem.
There is no way to completely fix or cure the condition, but patients often undergo speech therapy to help rebuild their language skills.
“There is not much progress [with medication for the condition]…the treatment for aphasia is speech therapy,” said Rapp.
He noted that in some cases a person may undergo electrical stimulation therapy along with speech therapy to “make the most” of the experience.
Williamson said that “strong family support is a critical part of living successfully with aphasia.”
However, it is not always permanent, and its duration and severity often depend on the severity of the brain damage.
Stroke victims especially with aphasia can regain speech, often in just a few weeks.