Bruce Willis, the highly successful action-hero actor, has aphasia, and, as a result, he is retiring from acting. Why, you might ask? The neurologic symptom is robbing him of his ability to perform; he can’t remember his acting lines. Approximately 15 million people worldwide have aphasia.
Willis is not the first celebrity to battle aphasia. As People documented, Sharon Stone suffered a stroke in 2001 and dealt with the condition, although she continues to work actively. Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke wrote a harrowing piece for The New Yorker in 2019 that detailed her struggles with aphasia after an aneurysm, revealing that for a stretch of time, she could not remember or say her own name aloud.
Now, other actors are revealing their difficulties with aphasia in video interviews online. Sharon Stone, who suffered a life-threatening stroke, found she was “damaged goods” in the film community, and getting back to work took work — especially in terms of rehab for her residual symptoms.
While suffering the effects of the disorder, Willis made over 15 films in two years — an inordinate number for any actor. The films include 10 Minutes Gone, Trauma Center, Survive the Night, Hard Kill, Breach, Cosmic Sin, Midnight in the Switchgrass, Out of Death, Survive the Game, Apex, Deadlock, Fortress, American Siege, Gasoline Alley, and A Day to Die.
During a number of the films he was shooting, his memory impairment required an earpiece to have his lines fed to him by another actor off-screen. In addition to problems with lines, he had difficulty following directions, specifically in one film’s sequence that required him to fire a gun loaded with blanks. Workdays were cut to four hours, and many scenes used body doubles.
More people have aphasia than have many other common conditions, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or muscular dystrophy.
Aphasia is not a neurocognitive disorder but a symptom that can affect anyone regardless of their intelligence, social status, or education. The causes are varied and include stroke, head injury, brain tumor, infection, or incipient dementia.
When there is language loss, both the ability to understand or produce it is the primary symptom; the usual area affected is the left hemisphere of the brain. The disruption of brain function known as aphasia isn’t a disorder but is listed by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke as a symptom of brain damage.
The left hemisphere, or “left brain,” is also affected when someone is diagnosed with chronic alcoholism and develops Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome; alcohol is a brain poison. Sometimes the condition is referred to as “wet brain” syndrome. Korsakoff’s can often be accompanied by psychotic thinking, but they can improve their mental status in time. No one is suggesting Willis suffers from alcoholism.
As someone recently described it, the person with aphasia feels like they are in a world where they can’t understand or speak the language. It is a devastating loss. Imagine what it must be for someone who has had a career based on language-production activities.
Willis has access to the top experts in the neurology field and may have been in treatment for years. The media has reported that his cognitive decline has occurred over several years, but, despite this impairment, he had continued to produce films.
How is it diagnosed? Aphasia is diagnosed in several ways. Imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) may be ordered. These tests identify the cause and areas of the brain that are damaged. There may also be testing for language fluency with a speech-language pathologist, psychological testing for picture identification and following directions, and other tests as indicated.
What are the treatments for aphasia? Treatments (such as speech and language therapy) exist for aphasias that are remediable. However, aphasia may be a symptom of a more complex series of brain neurologic disorders such as Alzheimer’s, which is progressive and currently has no robust, approved pharmacologic treatment that stops or reverses the disease’s progress.
Information on symptoms, treatments, clinical trials, and other resources for patients and caregivers can be obtained from the NIH.
Clinical trials for aphasia are listed on the NIH website.
The National Aphasia Association has a caregiver’s guide free as a download. They also provide a host of other resources.
One risk for someone with aphasia is depression as they become unable to communicate as before and cannot maintain the bonds that made their lives livable. Depression can lead to suicidal ideation, and both of these should be considered potential dangers that must be addressed.
The actor Robin Williams, who committed suicide in 2014, was diagnosed with a brain disorder, Lewy Body Dementia, and experienced insufferable symptoms. He had insomnia, impaired memory, paranoid thinking, panic attacks, and severe anxiety. His struggles are detailed in the documentary “Robin’s Wish” on Youtube. Watch the docu; it’s important.
While the brain is a marvelous organ, it is still immutable to interventions by we fallible human beings in our research.