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Understanding aphasia, the condition impacting Bruce Willis' acting career

Bruce Willis attends the premiere of "Motherless Brooklyn" during the 57th New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall on Oct. 11, 2019, in New York. Willis' family announced that the actor has been diagnosed with aphasia, causing him to step away from acting at the age of 67.
ANGELA WEISS
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AFP via Getty Images
Bruce Willis attends the premiere of "Motherless Brooklyn" during the 57th New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall on Oct. 11, 2019, in New York. Willis' family announced that the actor has been diagnosed with aphasia, causing him to step away from acting at the age of 67.

Legendary actor Bruce Willis announced Wednesday his departure from the big screen following his diagnosis with aphasia, which is "impacting his cognitive abilities," his family said in a statement.

While details of what led to Willis' aphasia diagnosis are unknown at this time, medical experts stress the importance of the brain condition and how its specifically treated — depending on its severity.

"[At some point], people will know somebody who's had a stroke and has aphasia," Dr. Swathi Kiran, professor of neurorehabilitation at Boston University, told NPR.

Aphasia is defined as a condition that affects the ability to speak, write and understand language, according to the Mayo Clinic. The brain disorder can occur after strokes or head injuries — and can even lead in some cases to dementia.

"As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him," his daughter, Rumer Willis, said on Instagram. "This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support."

It impacts the way a person can communicate

Medical experts say the impacts of aphasia can vary, depending on the person's diagnosis. But mainly, the condition affects a person's ability to communicate — whether it's written, spoken or both.

People living with aphasia can experience changes in their ability to communicate; as they may find difficulty finding words, using words out of order or will even speak in a short manner, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Dr. Jonathon Lebovitz, a neurosurgeon specializing in the surgical treatment of brain and spine conditions at Nuvance Health, told NPR that a person's condition depends on the exact portion of the brain that's impacted.

"In most patients that have aphasia, it is a symptom of a larger medical issue," said Lebovitz.

Aphasia diagnoses are more common than you think

According to the National Aphasia Association, the communication disorder affects roughly two million people in the U.S., as it's more common than Parkinson's Disease, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

Nearly 180,000 people in the U.S. acquire the condition each year. Most people living with aphasia are middle-aged or older, as the average age of those living with the condition is 70 years old. But anyone, including young children, can acquire it.

"Once you're over the age of 60-65, there's a higher chance of having a stroke and have aphasia (or being diagnosed with it)," said Kiran.

The most common cause of aphasia in Americans is stroke — with roughly 25 to 40% of stroke survivors are acquiring it. Individuals can also acquire aphasia as a result of a head injury, brain tumor or a degenerative process.

"It really depends on the exact reason that one is having aphasia and that will determine the long-term outlook and even potentially some of the upfront treatments," said Lebovitz.

Treatment for aphasia focuses on the symptoms

Fortunately, treatment options for aphasia are indeed possible.

Traditionally, most people undergo a form of speech and language therapy to restore their communicative skills. Kiran said this form of therapy is a big part of what medical experts can do to help someone recover.

"The road to rehabilitation or therapy can be long and hard, but it's possible for people to improve," she said.

Additionally, there are ongoing clinical trials that use brain stimulation and may help improve one's ability to regain skills, Kiran says. However, no long-term research has been conducted yet.

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