Bruce Willis, 67, made headlines this week, not for another blockbuster movie, but with news he’s “stepping away” from acting. The decision, announced by his ex-wife and fellow actor Demi Moore, is related to a health condition known as aphasia.

Dr. Laurie McWilliams
Dr. Laurie McWilliams

An estimated 1 million Americans have aphasia, a language disorder that affects communication. It can disrupt a person’s ability to speak, read or write, explained Dr. Laurie McWilliams, a neurologist and medical director of the Neurosciences Intensive Care Unit at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte.

“A normally functioning brain receives information and then processes it,” McWilliams said. “So, we hear something or read something, our brain takes that in, processes it and we articulate our thoughts either verbally or through writing.”

In people with aphasia, there is a breakdown in that process. They may lose their ability to understand what they read or what people are saying. In other cases, McWilliams said their brain can still process what’s being said or what they’re reading, but they cannot articulate their thoughts. Aphasia can also disrupt both processes.

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What causes aphasia?

Aphasia is often caused by a stroke, McWilliams said, especially in the left side of the brain that controls speech and language. A brain tumor can cause aphasia, as well.

“For others, having aphasia is secondary to having dementia,” she said. “So, it’s one of the many forms of dementia that we diagnose in patients.”

What symptoms would suggest someone might have it?

If a loved one seems more confused, like not knowing where they are, it could be an indicator of aphasia. Another thing neurologists find is that people with aphasia are unable to name certain objects in the room, such as a lamp or a light switch.

They may also start to find everyday tasks more difficult, even impossible, to do. “If someone used to take care of the finances or household chores and now, they can’t, that’s something to take stock of,” McWilliams said.

“If friends or co-workers begin to make comments that someone seems different, perhaps they’re more forgetful, are making more errors at work or can’t seem to express themselves, that could also be an indicator of a language disorder.”

How is it diagnosed?

Aphasia is diagnosed through neuroimaging, so the first step is to make an appointment with a neurologist.

McWilliams begins by observing the patient and asking questions. This gives her a feel for how well they can (or can’t) communicate. Next, she orders a CT scan of the patient’s brain and reviews it for abnormalities. If further testing is recommended, an MRI of the brain would follow.

Keep in mind that cost will vary based on insurance.

How can I support someone with a language disorder?

Not being able to communicate can be terribly frustrating for victims and their caregivers and patience is an important part of the journey.

“It’s incredibly important to keep the lines of communication open, even if your loved one can’t express to you what they’re thinking,” McWilliams said. “Do crossword puzzles or brain busters, have them write down their thoughts if they can’t express them verbally, etc. Find ways to keep their brain cells sharp.”

Can I reduce my risk?

McWilliams said some studies have found that ‘working out your brain’ can help ward off a language disorder such as aphasia.

“Continue to exercise cognitively. Whether you read, like doing puzzles, continue to work, take classes or have hobbies, try to keep your brain activated and challenged,” she said.