Suffolk County

Bruce Willis’s aphasia diagnosis brings awareness to communication disorder

BOSTON, Mass. — Longtime Hollywood actor Bruce Willis’s public diagnosis with aphasia is bringing awareness to the communication disorder.

A statement posted to his daughter Rumer’s Instagram account says the “Die Hard” star would be “stepping away” from his decades-long career due to “some health issues” and a recent diagnosis with aphasia, “which is impacting his cognitive abilities.”

The announcement is shedding light on the condition about 3 million people live with in the United States.

Aphasia is most commonly caused by stroke but can also result from a traumatic brain injury or tumor, explained Swathi Kiran, director of Boston University’s Aphasia Research Laboratory. In some cases, the disorder can be primary progressive aphasia, meaning the condition gets worse over time.

It is unclear what kind of aphasia Willis has.

“People with post-stroke aphasia or primary progressive aphasia usually have trouble speaking aloud or in complete sentences. They also have trouble understanding what is being said to them,” Kiran said. “An actor’s role is to speak and communicate and recite from memory long sentences with emotion. And what aphasia does to a person is disrupts that ability or takes away that ability.”

Steve Parnell is among the one-third of stroke survivors who live with aphasia. He has seen significant progress in his speech recovery from 19 months of therapy followed by BU’s treatment at its Aphasia Resource Center.

“It’s funny. I can see everything in my brain. It’s like, ‘Okay now, Steve. Just get it to come out your mouth,’” Parnell explained by Zoom Wednesday. “It’s frustrating, because many times I have to say to someone, ‘It’s been four years, and yes, I did have a stroke. But could you just help me get through this by just listening to my words, and then I’ll listen to you, and we can communicate a little bit better?’”

Parnell and Kiran hope new awareness about aphasia will foster patience and compassion in those interacting with people who live with the condition.

“I work with the National Aphasia Association, and part of what we’re really trying to do is make people understand that just because someone cannot communicate, they’re not stupid, they’re not intellectually affected,” Kiran said.

Kiran, who helped develop Constant Therapy, software that provides rehabilitation tools for people with aphasia, said frequent and consistent therapy help most patients.

Parnell is an example of that success and hopes Willis and others will see the same results.

“I’m blessed to know that – hearing his story – things will get better,” Parnell said. “Things can really get better only because, if you work and you work with others you’ll make progress like there’s no tomorrow.”

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