The news that Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting, possibly permanently, because of aphasia has drawn attention to a condition that is not that well known.
So, let’s unpack what’s going on.
What, Exactly is Aphasia?
Aphasia is damage to the brain which affects the ability to express and comprehend language.
There are three main kinds of aphasia, and it’s unclear what kind Willis is suffering from (although it’s possible to speculate).
- Broca aphasia. This is caused by damage to the front portion of the language-dominant side of the brain (note, this is normally the left side of your brain, but if you are left handed it might be the right side). People with Broca aphasia tend to drop short words and speak in very short sentences, struggle understanding some speech, and may also have right side weakness.
- Wernicke aphasia. This is caused by damage to the side portion of the language-dominant side. Sufferers tend to add words, invent words, speak in long and confusing sentences and also have difficulty understanding speech. They may also use incorrect words.
- Global aphasia. This is caused by more widespread damage and results in overall difficulties speaking and/or comprehending.
People with aphasia also may have problems communicating in writing as the issue is with language, not speech.
There are a few other types of aphasia. One of them is primary progressive aphasia, which is extremely rare and is a form of dementia.
I hate to speculate, but I also can’t resist speculating. This article in the L.A. Times explains that Willis has had issues for a while that have gotten worse, which makes me wonder if what he has is, indeed, primary progressive aphasia.
I hope not because dementia is always an extremely ugly word and a fate I wish on no one.
Aphasia can’t be cured, but it can sometimes be treated with speech therapy, which can help rewire around the damaged parts of the brain.
Will Bruce Willis Return to Acting?
My guess is no. Therapy might help him communicate better, but the level of language use an actor needs is likely beyond him at this point.
It’s very unfortunate, but I do hope it increases awareness.
About 1 million Americans currently have aphasia, and nearly 180,000 are diagnosed a year.
It’s most often caused by a brain injury or a stroke.
It’s a terrible and frustrating condition that deserves more attention…and more research dollars.