What Is Aphasia? Learn about its Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Actor Bruce Willis was in the news this week when his family announced that the Hollywood star would step away from his acting career due to a diagnosis of aphasia. This cognitive disorder affects about 2 million Americans and nearly 180,000 Americans acquire the disorder every year. Still, many people have never heard of it.

Aphasia affects the part of the brain that processes language. It impairs the ability to speak and understand others and can leave a person unable to effectively communicate. While aphasia impedes a person’s ability to process language it does not affect intelligence.

“Aphasia is a language disturbance,” says University Hospitals Brain Health and Memory Center Director Alan Lerner, MD. “It really is a problem with either comprehension or understanding of language, whether written or verbal, or expression – getting the words out.”

What Causes Aphasia?

Aphasia is usually brought on by an underlying condition, the most common being stoke, says Dr. Lerner. It can also be caused by a head injury, brain tumor, infection, or degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. Aphasia is most common among older people, but it can occur in people of any age, race or gender.

Types of Aphasia

There are many types of aphasia. These are usually diagnosed based on which area of the language-dominant side of the brain is affected and the extent of the damage. Some people with aphasia might have difficulty speaking, while others may struggle to follow a conversation. In milder cases, the effects of aphasia might be much less noticeable than in a severe case, which can affect speaking, writing, reading and listening.

Dr. Lerner says that in 95 percent of people, language is controlled by the left side of the brain, which also controls the right side of the body. The damage to the left side of the brain in people with aphasia might also lead to physical issues such as weakness or paralysis in their right leg and arm.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Aphasia is diagnosed through language tests conducted by a speech-language pathologist. These tests might be accompanied by imaging scans of the brain, including computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Some people with aphasia fully recover without treatment, but for most people, some loss of language skills remains. Dr. Lerner says the first line of treatment aims at diagnosing and treating the underlying condition or injury. Secondly, speech-language therapy is important for maintaining communication strategies. Speech therapy can often help recover some speech and language functions over time, but many people continue to have problems communicating. A speech-language pathologist can help patients and their loved ones learn coping strategies and find the best ways to communicate effectively with each other.

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