In the days following Will Smith’s infamous “slap heard ‘around the world'” at the Academy Awards, it was easy to miss the news about a darker story affecting one of Hollywood’s best stars: Bruce Willis.
Late last month, a statement posted on Instagram by his wife, Emma Hemming Willis, ex-wife, Demi Moore, and their children read: “We wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has had some health issues recently” who was diagnosed with aphasia, which It affects his cognitive abilities. As a result of this and with a great deal of consideration, Bruce is walking away from a profession that meant so much to him.”
According to a report by Inside Edition, the 67-year-old action star “secretly struggled for years to continue making films while experiencing symptoms of aphasia.”
In the past four years, Willis has shot nearly two dozen low-budget films in what has been reported as an effort to make as much money as possible for his family before he became unable to do so.
The Inside Edition also notes that Willis’ memory decline has become a growing concern for his colleagues. On the set of a movie called White Elephant, he reportedly became very confused, asking the cast and crew, “I know why you’re here, but why am I here?”
For many people, Willis’ ad is the first time they’ve heard the term “aphasia.”
But it’s actually a more common diagnosis than you think.
The National Aphasia Society says the condition is “more common than Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy,” affecting an estimated 2 million Americans, with about 180,000 new cases diagnosed annually.
To better understand aphasia, we asked neurologist Dr. Damon Salzman, a dementia specialist at Cleveland Clinic Weston, for a quick primer on the condition.
What is aphasia and what causes it?
Aphasia is not a specific diagnosis, but rather a description of symptoms. This means that the affected person has difficulties in being able to understand language, produce language, or both.
What are the symptoms of aphasia and how quickly or slowly appear?
He may appear subtly such as having difficulty naming familiar things or people. It may develop into an inability to form intelligible sentences or to understand what people are saying.
This is caused by damage to the parts of the brain that control language, such as the left temporal lobe (the part of the brain next to the left temple), the left parietal lobe (a little further back and a little higher), or the connections between them.
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The most common causes include strokes, brain tumors, seizures or traumatic brain injury. However, in these cases, it tends to happen fairly quickly, over minutes to hours to days.
However, it is less common that it may result from a neurodegenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, or a condition called primary progressive aphasia. In these cases, there is a slow and steady build-up of toxic proteins in the brain that tend to settle in areas that control language. As the concentration of these proteins increases, they may damage these language centers and cause these problems to progress, albeit slowly (months to years).
What is the awareness of the person with aphasia in this case?
Depending on the areas involved, the affected person may be fully aware of the problem, completely oblivious to the problem, or anywhere in between.
How is aphasia treated and what are the chances of recovery or improvement?
Treatment for aphasia depends a lot on the underlying condition and associated symptoms. Depending on the cause, there may be different medications or treatments that may be helpful.
In addition to medication, speech therapy may be helpful. Likewise, the chance of cure or effectiveness of treatment depends on this underlying cause.
The way I explain it to people is to use cars as a metric. What causes damage to one type of vehicle engine may cause a different set of problems to another.
It is therefore very difficult to make a generalization about the best treatment or chance of recovery or improvement without knowing the specific cause of the condition and the general extent of the damage.
The most important thing to remember in cases of cognitive impairment such as aphasia is that while it is normal for all of us to forget words from time to time, if a person begins to have more advanced symptoms – i.e. difficulty speaking and/or understanding – this is the time To undergo a full medical evaluation and to know your options.