What was aphasia, the rare brain disease that ended Bruce Willis’ acting career?

The cognitive disorder that Bruce Willis’ family say effectively ended his acting career is likely a rarer form of a neurodegenerative disease that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States, an expert has told the Daily Beast.

The 67 year old man die hard actors family wrote on Instagram Wednesday that Willis was diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder caused by brain damage, and would be “stepping away” from acting.

“To the amazing Bruce supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has had health issues and was recently diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” wrote his family. “Following this and with great consideration Bruce walks away from career it meant so much to him.

“This is a truly difficult time for our family and we greatly appreciate your continued love, compassion and support,” the statement read. “We’re going through this as a strong family unit and we wanted to bring in his fans because we know how much he means to you, just like you mean to him.”

Aphasia is a language disorder, not necessarily a speech disorder, that affects approximately 1 million people in the United States, 180,000 of whom are diagnosed each year.

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

Aphasia is primarily caused by a stroke affecting areas of the brain that control speech and language. This type of brain damage impacts an individual’s ability to retrieve words or organize words into sentences. In rarer cases, brain damage can be caused by a neurodegenerative disease that gets progressively worse over time.

Willis’ condition may have been apparent as early as 2020, according to a film source who Recount page 6 that the actor had trouble remembering lines on set for some of his recent movies, which were largely B-action movies. In some cases, he had to be fed lines through an earphone and get replaced with body doubles.

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

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

“The family statement that he had cognition issues indicates that it may be primary progressive aphasia, which is less common, affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the United States,” said Borio said.

While some people with mild aphasia can bounce back without treatment, many do not.

“We really believe that with therapy — with the help of a speech therapist, an occupational therapist — patients can get better,” Borio said. “I don’t treat Bruce, but if I did, I would work with him and his family to teach him how to communicate, giving him tools to access words a little easier.” She said the tools don’t have to be anything fancy — they can be as simple as an iPhone or even using social media.

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

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

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