What is aphasia? Rare brain condition ends Bruce Willis’ acting career

April 1, 2022

The cognitive disorder that Bruce Willis’ family says has effectively ended his acting career is likely a a neurodegenerative condition that affects about one million people in the United States, reports The Daily Beast.

The 67-year-old Die Hardactor’s family wrote on Instagram on March 30 that Willis has been diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder caused by brain damage, and he would be “stepping away” from acting.

“To Bruce’s amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” his family wrote. “As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.”

“This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion, and support,” the statement said. “We are moving through this as a strong family unit and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him.”

“It impacts all language modalities—listening, reading, speaking, and writing,” Kathryn Borio, a speech-language pathologist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago who specializes in aphasia, told The Daily Beast. “A hallmark symptom is this sort of ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon where I know the word but can’t find it.”

Aphasia is mostly caused by a stroke affecting areas in the brain that control speech and language. This sort of damage to the brain impacts an individual’s ability to retrieve words or organize their words into sentences. In rarer instances, brain damage can be caused by a neurodegenerative condition that progressively worsens over time.

Willis’ condition may have been apparent as far back as 2020, according to a film source, who told Page Six that the actor was having trouble remembering lines on the sets of some of his recent flicks, which have largely been B action movies. In some cases, he had to be fed lines through an earpiece and have body doubles replace him.

“His family… stepped in, they moved in to take care of him,” the source said.

No exact details of Willis’ aphasia have been made public, so it’s hard to say definitively what caused his condition. However, Borio speculated the actor likely has the rarer neurodegenerative type called primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a type of aphasia that often gradually begins before age 65 and results from degeneration of the frontal or temporal lobes of the brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“The family’s statement indicating he was having trouble with his cognition does point to an idea that perhaps it’s primary progressive aphasia, which is less common, affecting [fewer] than 200,000 people in the United States.,” Borio said.

While some people with mild aphasia may bounce back without treatment, it’s not the case for many. “We really do believe that with therapy—with the help of a speech therapist, occupational therapist—patients can improve,” Borio said. “I’m not treating Bruce, but if I was, I would be working with him and his family to train him how to communicate, giving him some tools to access words a bit easier.” She said the tools don’t need to be anything fancy—they can be as simple as an iPhone or even using social media.

It’s important to realize, just because someone with aphasia has trouble communicating doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent, Borio emphasized. “It’s not a loss of intelligence. Someone with aphasia is still an intelligent person that thinks the same way, their thoughts are the same, but their ability to communicate their thoughts becomes more difficult.”

“I feel that the Willis family made a really brave choice by using the word aphasia by name,” she said. “As a clinician, it means a lot when a family member who is in the public realm uses their platform to help us advocate for patients. We can hopefully advance science and advance the care of people living with aphasia.”

Research contact: @thedailybeast