Aphasia – As a researcher and a clinician, it is part of my mission (so to speak) to spread awareness of some of the lesser known aspects of dementia. In my case it is the language difficulties, known as ‘aphasia’, and speech difficulties, known as ‘apraxia’ or ‘dysarthria’. Having this kind of impact is slow work. But earlier this month, following a terribly sad announcement from Bruce Willis’ family, public awareness has been dramatically altered.
Bruce Willis’s daughter spoke publicly via twitter to announce his diagnosed of aphasia. Bruce has not had a stroke nor a brain injury- both common causes of sudden onset aphasia. It appears he has developed it gradually. In her tweet Bruce’s daughter also explained that Bruce Willis’ aphasia is also associated with cognitive difficulties.
Now aphasia is defined as a language impairment. In reality aphasia is quite variable and affects people differently. Most often it results in difficulties getting words out. People with aphasia have difficulties associating meanings with words or may struggle to think of a word, even when they know what they want to say. In the latter case it may feel that the word is on the tip of their tongue (happens to us all occasionally, but I mean every sentence in this case). People with aphasia may make category errors and say ‘apple’ when they mean ‘pear’ or they may not able to get the sounds in the right sequence and produce a word salad e.g. ‘animal’ may become ‘manimal’. These difficulties can impact nouns, verbs or more broadly grammar. They may also have difficulties understanding words, this means they may not be able to follow what someone has says. They may ask what a word means or lose track of what has been said exactly.
People with aphasia may be assumed to have much more significant cognitive difficulties due to their problems in accessing language. Almost every time we interact with other people we speak to them; we use language to communicate what we mean and we listen to what they have to say. So, people with aphasia are often excluded from conversation and social interaction. And many of the people I work with describe experiences where people have presumed, they cannot remember, cannot decide and cannot do most activities of daily living. Importantly, people with aphasia often CAN, with the right support. Speech and language therapy is one type of support that can offer this.
As a speech and language therapist and clinical academic it is my goal to increase public awareness, increase commissioning for NHS services and help people with aphasia lead a better life. It is every researchers dream to improve people’s lives. To do this we try to spread the word. I have, in the past written blogs, done podcasts, presented at all types of workshops and conferences. But this terribly sad news will have a positive impact. For every person who has aphasia, be it as a consequence of a stroke, brain injury or dementia, Bruce Willis and his family have changed the lives of people with aphasia around the world for the better. I am terribly sad for Bruce, but also grateful he and his family felt able to share this news.
Find out more about Apasia, and some of the work taking place in the University College London Aphasia lab – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/aphasialab 
Dr Anna Volkmer  is a Speech and Language Therapist and researcher in Language and Cognition, Department of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London. Anna is researching Speech and language therapy interventions in language led dementia and was once voted scariest speech and language therapist (even her children agree).