What is aphasia?

man spewing puzzle pieces, what is aphasia, cognitive decline, disorder of the brain that controls language, brain tumor, speech disorder, bruce willis, alternative communication, speech therapy

Bruce Willis, the 67-year-old actor mostly known for portraying wisecracking action heroes like John McClane from the Die Hard series, announced his retirement from acting, after being diagnosed with aphasia. Those who worked with him had been aware of a cognitive decline over several years, noticing a struggle with his memory and an inability to deliver long lines.

So, what is aphasia? Aphasia is a disorder caused by damage to a specific area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension (the ability to understand). Most aphasia is caused by a stroke or head injury and usually appears more suddenly. But aphasia can also present gradually from a disease or slow-growing brain tumor and sometimes, this can lead to dementia.

Symptoms of aphasia can include:

  • Speaking in short or incomplete sentences
  • Speaking sentences that don’t make sense
  • Using made-up words
  • Difficulty with retrieving words or being able to pronounce words
  • Not understanding conversation or what people are saying to you
  • Trouble reading and writing

The biggest complication is the difficulty of communicating, which can affect so many aspects of one’s life. This is where a Speech-Language Pathologist can help by providing speech therapy to facilitate recovery of speech and language function. Sometimes learning how to deal with decreased expressive language with other tools such as apps on a mobile device, a specialized computer system, a simple picture/word board, or gestures, can improve communication and connection with family and friends. Speech Pathologists are the experts for alternative communication options too.

Hennepin Healthcare’s Speech-Language Pathology Department consists of 21 Speech Pathologists. Some work solely with patients in the hospital, some work with patients in a clinic setting, and several work in both. Speech disorders can be congenital, meaning you are born with it. Examples of this include stuttering or difficulty with pronouncing certain sounds. Children are seen in our Speech-Language Pathology Clinic. Speech disorders can also be a result of a condition suffered such as a stroke, cancers of the head or neck, a brain injury or vocal cord damage.

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month and provides an opportunity to raise awareness about disorders like these that affect communication. Do you know someone who suffers from aphasia? The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), offers tips on communicating with someone with aphasia:

  1. Get my attention before you start speaking.
  2. Keep eye contact with me. Watch my body language and the gestures I use.
  3. Talk to me in a quiet place. Turn off the TV or radio.
  4. Keep your voice at a normal level. You do not need to talk louder unless I ask you to.
  5. Keep the words you use simple but adult. Don’t “talk down” to me.
  6. Use shorter sentences. Repeat key words that you want me to understand.
  7. Slow down your speech.
  8. Give me time to speak. It may take me longer. Try not to finish my sentences for me.
  9. Try using drawings, gestures, writing, and facial expressions. I may understand those better than words sometimes.
  10. Ask me to draw, write, or point when I am having trouble talking.
  11. Ask me “yes” and “no” questions. Those are easier than questions that I have to answer in words or sentences.
  12. Let me make mistakes sometimes. I may not be able to say everything perfectly all the time.
  13. Let me try to do things for myself. I may need to try a few times. Help me when I ask for it.

“Aphasia finds the mind struggling as it seeks ways to push a thought, one thought, any thought through a banged-up brain to the world outside where it can be interpreted by other mortals not damaged by aphasia.”

  • Helen Harlan Wulf, author, Aphasia, My World Alone


  1. Susan Olson on May 17, 2022 at 2:34 pm

    Happy May is Better Hearing and Speech Month to our amazing Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.