What is aphasia - the condition Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with?

Aphasia's most common causes are a stroke, severe head injury, a brain tumour and progressive neurological conditions. Credit: PA

Bruce Willis, the actor best known for his work on the Die Hard films, stepped away from his acting career after being diagnosed with aphasia.

The 68-year-old's family said that the condition is "impacting his cognitive abilities".

In February this year, his family confirmed this had progressed to frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

The announcement has generated much interest in aphasia, but what exactly causes it and what treatments are there to help those living with the condition?

Bruce Willis and wife Emma Heming. Credit: AP

What exactly is aphasia?

Aphasia, which is most common in people over 65, is a condition that can make it difficult for people to talk, understand, read and write.

Speaking problems are a common symptom - many people with the condition make mistakes with the words they use.

This can include choosing the wrong word or putting words together incorrectly.

What causes the condition?

More than 350,000 people in the UK were living with aphasia in 2018.

It is estimated that one in three people are affected with the condition after a stroke.

Other common causes of aphasia include: a severe head injury, a brain tumour or progressive neurological conditions such as dementia.

What are the different types of aphasia?

Primary progressive aphasia (PPA) is a rare type of dementia which affects speech and communication. Symptoms tend to worsen over time.

PPA can manifest itself in speech becoming more difficult to form, making mistakes with the sounds of words, speech becoming slower or more vague and forgetting the meaning of complicated words.

It is caused by clumps of abnormal protein forming inside brain cells, mainly in the front and side of the brain, that control language and behaviour.

In 2016, it was announced that Monty Python’s Terry Jones, who died in 2020 aged 77, had been diagnosed with the condition, which is a form of frontotemporal dementia.

Monty Python star Terry Jones died at the age of 77 in 2020. Credit: AP

According to the NHS, the average survival time for people with frontotemporal dementia is around eight years after symptoms start, but some people live much longer.

Someone with expressive aphasia may have difficulty communicating their thoughts and ideas and may struggle with everyday tasks - such as using the phone or writing an email- as their speech and writing can also be affected.

A person with receptive aphasia experiences difficulty understanding things they hear or read.

People with the most common types of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease, usually have a mild form of aphasia, according to the NHS.

What treatments are there for aphasia?

Currently, speech and language therapy is the main type of treatment for people with aphasia.

The aim of this is to help people restore communicative functions and find new ways of expression.

The majority of people diagnosed with the condition from a single event make at least some degree of recovery with therapy.

However, there is less of a chance of recovery for those with aphasia resulting from a progressive neurological condition, which causes the brain and nervous system to become damaged over time.

What is FTD?

FTD is an “umbrella term” for a group of dementias that mainly affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for such things as personality, behaviour, language and speech, according to Dementia UK.

The charity said that FTD is a “rare” form of dementia that affects only around one in 20 people with a dementia diagnosis.

Emma and the rest of Willis's family have been raising awareness about dementia since the diagnosis.

After the diagnosis was announced the Alzheimer’s Society website, Alzheimers.org.uk, saw 12,000% more visitors.

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Where to get support if you have been affected by aphasia:

  • Say Aphasia is a charity that offers advice for those with the condition and hosts social events to help people connect.

  • Speak with IT aims to improve the wellbeing of people with aphasia and their carers.

  • The Stroke Association has useful information on communication tools and available support.

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