After the news of Bruce Willis, a CT speech pathologist explained that aphasia and dementia are not the same thing

Karen Anderson is in a constant battle to be heard.

The 72-year-old resident of Cromwell had a stroke last July, after which he was unable to speak for several weeks. With the support of family members and through regular visits with Stratford speech-language pathologist Sarah Gromko, Anderson has regained her ability to speak, but her speech is still stunted, and communication remains difficult for her.

“I want to tell someone that I watched a show, but all of a sudden, the brain just says ‘I don’t think I can tell you anymore,’” she said. “That’s what’s so frustrating.”

Anderson’s condition is known as aphasia, a disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that control language. The disorder has been gaining a lot of attention lately, after it was announced that movie star Bruce Willis has retired from acting due to aphasia.

But Gromko — who works at St. Vincent’s Hospital Outpatient Rehabilitation, part of the Hartford Healthcare Rehabilitation Network — worries that highlighting Willis might lead many people to incorrectly describe aphasia.

She said the Willis family’s announcement of his condition stated that the aphasia was “affecting his cognitive abilities”. Gromko fears that this might lead some people to believe that aphasia is a form of dementia, which it is not.

Gromko said this misunderstanding about aphasia may be harmful to patients like Anderson, who struggle with language but retain their cognitive abilities.

“If people believe that people with aphasia have cognitive problems, they will treat them like people who have cognitive problems,” she said. “I don’t really want people to think that these people I’m dealing with don’t have the power to make decisions.”

About 1 million people in the United States have aphasia, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, although the National Aphasia Association estimates the number at at least 2 million. Both organizations report that approximately 180,000 Americans develop this disorder each year.

There are multiple types of aphasia, Gromko said, and without knowing what Willis type it is, it’s irresponsible to associate the disorder with dementia.

There is a form of aphasia, called primary progressive aphasia, that results from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, she said. In this case, Gromko said, the diagnosis usually comes about two years before the diagnosis of dementia.

But other forms of aphasia are not associated with cognitive problems. According to the National Aphasia Association, “A diagnosis of aphasia does not mean that a person has mental illness or impaired intelligence.”

However, Gromko said that one form of aphasia — called Wernicke’s aphasia or “receptive aphasia” — can affect people’s ability to understand language, which some might interpret as a form of dementia.

“When people talk to you, you don’t quite understand what they’re saying,” she said. “A lot of people think these people have cognitive problems. They think ‘Oh, they can’t understand me.'”

Indeed, she said, it is as if these people are hearing a foreign language.

Other types of aphasia include Broca’s aphasia (or “expressive aphasia”), in which Gromko said “people know what they want to say, but they can’t get the words out,” and blanket aphasia that can affect people’s ability to understand. Speaks words and sentences.

Although not everyone can recover from aphasia, some people with this condition — for example, those who had it after a stroke — can get better. Gromko said many of the people she works with are “very smart people” who are committed to restoring their communication skills.

This includes Anderson. For the first few weeks after the stroke, she could not pronounce her name or write the alphabet. She has regained those skills and continues to improve, although it is an uphill battle, and she still has problems in many areas, including math and numbers.

But, like Gromko, she urges others with aphasia not to give up.

“People can do this,” Anderson said. “Your mind is still there. You just have to find it.”

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