What is aphasia, the disorder that forced Bruce Willis to retire?

The condition can lead to problems with speaking and understanding, and is very common after suffering brain damage

Bruce Willis pictured at the 2014 Academy Awards.
Bruce Willis pictured at the 2014 Academy Awards.ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ (AFP)

Aphasia, the disorder that has forced Bruce Willis to retire from movies, is a cognitive condition that can lead to problems with speaking and understanding. It is very common after suffering brain damage and it usually comes on suddenly, although on other occasions it can progress slowly.

According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the majority of people suffering from aphasia are middle-aged adults or seniors, but it can affect children too. The NIH explains that it occurs due to damage in one or more parts of the brain related to language. Much of the time, the cause is a head injury or other damage that can cause the blood supply to be cut off to part of the brain.

Bruce Willis in a scene from one of the 'Die Hard' movies (Spanish captions).Video: EPV

According to a 2005 study, between 21 and 38% of patients develop the condition after a stroke. Other causes, the NIH explains, are serious blows to the head, tumor, bullet wounds, infections or progressive neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

There are many different types of aphasia, but they can be divided into two major groups: fluent and non-fluent. Among the former, the most common is Wernicke’s aphasia. Sufferers of this condition often form long sentences that don’t make sense, and include invented or out-of-context words. Broca’s aphasia, meanwhile, is the most-common form of non-fluent aphasia, and the patient usually can understand what is being said and use short sentences, often eliminating prepositions and pronouns. This condition is usually accompanied by a weakness or paralysis in the right arm and leg.

Treatment for aphasia includes a neurological exam and speech therapy. The outcome often depends greatly on the initial severity.

The family of 67-year-old Willis announced his condition via Instagram, but did not specify what type he is suffering nor its severity. “To Bruce’s amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” the statement read. “As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.”

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