Actor Bruce Willis steps away from acting due to aphasia. What is it and what causes this condition?

Published: Thursday, March 31, 2022 - 1:45pm

On Wednesday, news broke that actor Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting. The reason, according to his family who shared the news on Instagram, is aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities. What is aphasia and what causes it?

Dr. Jeremy Pruzin is a behavioral neurologist at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. 

"So aphasia is really a symptom, it's not really a diagnosis," he explained. "And there are various causes, which is why it's not really a diagnosis."

Pruzin says aphasia can be caused by stroke, tumor, traumatic brain injuries or certain dementias, like frontotemporal degeneration. Though it’s unclear what caused Willis’s aphasia, it affects speech either understanding it, producing it or both.

"It's incredibly frustrating for patients who are experiencing this," said Pruzin. "And they're usually quite aware of it. And it's, you know, not being able to express yourself or understand can be incredibly difficult … people feel sort of shut out from the world, sometimes."

Pruzin says if a stroke is the cause, aphasia can come on quickly, "So you can all of a sudden not be able to speak at all and you have these onset of symptoms."

And if they're caught early, they're actually quite treatable with speech therapy.

Aphasia due to neurodegenerative changes develops over time, said Pruzin.

"When it's one of these forms of these neurodegenerative forms, then it's much more insidious. There are no real good treatments. People do try speech therapy, but this can develop over the course of years and years. And diagnosis can sometimes take even longer because it can be very subtle."

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