Overlake Speech-Language Expert Breaks down Aphasia Causes, Effects and Treatments

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Recently, multiple celebrities, including "Die Hard" star Bruce Willis and daytime talk show host Wendy Williams, have shared their diagnoses of aphasia. In 2019, "Game of Thrones" actor Emilia Clarke also shared her experience with aphasia resulting from two brain aneurysms. These celebrity cases are drawing a lot of attention and curiosity to this largely unknown diagnosis. Overlake speech-language pathologist Emily Brandjord explains the basics of aphasia, who is affected and how it is treated.

What is aphasia?

Granddaughter talks to grandmother.

Aphasia is a communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to process language. It results from damage to the language networks in the brain, usually after those skills are fully developed. This makes it different from developmental language disorders that some are born with.

The impairment can affect verbal expression, comprehension, reading and/or writing skills. Aphasia affects each person differently, depending on the cause and severity of damage. For example, it can vary from mild, like unusual word-finding difficulties, to severe cases where language is completely lost. More commonly, aphasia may look like someone who does not understand what is being said to them, someone who speaks fluently but not coherently, or someone who speaks in very short phrases and has trouble with grammar.

According to a National Aphasia Association (NAA) 2016 survey, at least two million people in the United States have aphasia, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates approximately 180,000 new diagnoses every year.

What causes aphasia?

Aphasia results from damage to the language networks of the brain, which are typically in the left hemisphere. Common causes include:

  • Stroke (about 25–40% of stroke survivors acquire aphasia).
  • Head injury.
  • Brain tumor.
  • Brain infection.
  • Dementia or Alzheimer disease.

Who is typically affected by aphasia?

Both men and women are affected equally. Aphasia can occur at any age—Emilia Clarke was just 24 when she received an aphasia diagnosis following her strokes. However, it is most commonly seen in those over 65 years of age. Bruce Willis and Wendy Williams both developed primary progressive aphasia (PPA), which is a subtype of frontotemporal dementia (FTD). This is a type of dementia where the language networks start degrading first, resulting in language difficulty as the primary symptom of this degenerative condition. This is different from the type of aphasia that results from a one-time injury, such as Emilia Clarke’s aneurysms, where the brain has the potential to heal and recover skills.

How is aphasia treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age and general health. The goal of treatment is to improve the ability to communicate through methods that may include:

  • Speech-language therapy, where therapists support retraining of the skills that were lost.
  • Augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) options, such as picture boards, speech tablets, phone apps, etc.
  • Group therapy: Overlake Medical Center hosts a monthly Aphasia Communication & Support group for people with aphasia to practice their individualized communication strategies, share their views on living with a communication disorder and provide an opportunity for independent communication in a supportive group environment.
  • Music therapy.

What else should I know about aphasia?

  • Aphasia affects language—not intelligence! People with aphasia often access all the ideas and thoughts they want to say, but the words are not easy to find or put together. 
  • When speaking with someone with aphasia, here are a few ways you can help:
    • Speak slightly slower (not louder).
    • Use short sentences or phrases.
    • Don’t finish their sentences for them until they ask for help.
    • Be patient. Give them time to respond.
  • Overall, be kind. When simple conversations are hard work, it’s easy to feel very alone. Social isolation is one of the hardest parts of this diagnosis.
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