Action star Bruce Willis draws attention to a little known condition called Aphasia

  • Aphasia, a little known inability to comprehend or formulate language, has been brought to the forefront when the family of Die Hard star Bruce Willis announced he is stepping away from his career in film and TV.
  • Called the invisible disability, aphasia can be caused by a stroke, tumour, head injury or other damage to the language centres of the brain or triggered by a brain infection or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • TheHomeGround Asia revisits the disorder that affects 3,000 people in Singapore every year  regardless of age, race, gender, and profession. 
Action and "Die Hard" star Bruce Willis takes a bow from the entertainment industry, citing aphasia as the main cause. (Photo source: CNN)
Action and "Die Hard" star Bruce Willis takes a bow from the entertainment industry, citing aphasia as the main cause. (Photo source: CNN)

Aphasia affects an estimated 3,000 adults in Singapore every year. Yet, it is an invisible disability that can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, gender, and profession. It is also a disorder difficult for most people to understand as it affects language, not intellect. 

The condition was brought to light when the family of action star Bruce Willis announced his retirement from the entertainment industry.

Who is Bruce Willis and why he is making an impact

Willis, 67, rose to fame on the TV show Moonlighting, which was aired from 1985 to 1989, before establishing himself as a prolific action star known for his wry delivery. Aside from the Die Hard franchise, he is also acclaimed for his roles in films such as Pulp Fiction, The Fifth Element, The Last Boy Scout, Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense, Looper and Moonrise Kingdom.

In a joint statement posted on Willis’ family social media accounts, it said that Willis had been “experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities”.

His daughter Rumer wrote in her verified Instagram account, “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.”

As a result, Willis is stepping down from his career “that has meant so much to him”. The statement added that “it is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support. 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”.

Aphasia: An invisible disorder with a devastating impact

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, aphasia is a language disorder caused by damage in a specific area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension, leaving a person unable to communicate effectively with others. (Photo source: Ernest Health)

In a statement to the media, Aphasia SG, a not-for-profit organisation supporting persons with aphasia and their caregivers, expresses great sadness “that we read about celebrated actor Bruce Willis being diagnosed with aphasia. Although details of his condition are not mentioned, we understand that the award-winning celebrity has to give up his passion for acting and retire from show business”.

Speech and Language Therapist Evelyn Khoo, who founded Aphasia SG, says, “Aphasia is a communication impairment that affects individuals after a brain injury such as stroke, head trauma, brain tumour, brain infection or progressive neurological conditions. It can happen to anyone … and manifests in different symptoms and severity across sufferers; some persons with aphasia (PWAs) have more difficulty understanding language than expressing themselves.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, for most, the cause is a stroke that has cut off blood to part of the brain. Without oxygen and nutrients, brain cells die, which leads to the difficulty of retrieving words. It can also be caused by damage to the brain from impact injury such as a car accident. Brain tumours can also result in aphasia.

“At Aphasia SG, we have witnessed countless individuals and their families suffer the consequences of the loss of language capabilities. When the ability to communicate is affected, a PWA can encounter difficulties talking to his or her family, socialising with friends, interacting with society, or even continuing to work,” the aphasia advocate says.

Even day-to-day activities such as using the phone, going online, or buying food can become challenging and when the ability to live independently is affected, it can lead to dire effects such as social isolation and mental health issues, Ms Khoo says, adding that research has shown that PWAs are 93 per cent more likely than stroke survivors without aphasia to suffer from psychological anxiety and depression. 

“At Aphasia SG, our mission is to empower PWAs to lead meaningful lives and educate the public so that we can build a more inclusive and aphasia-friendly Singapore. Our flagship programmes – Chit Chat Cafe, Aphasia Choir and Games & Craft Night – are facilitated by trained volunteers to have supported conversations with our participants. Through our events, we have seen our community forge new friendships, learn new skills, and become more confident in expressing themselves despite having aphasia,” she says.

Other famous celebrities who suffered from aphasia

Willis is not the first celebrity to experience the debilitating effects of the condition. English actress Emilia Clarke, who played Qi’ra in the 2018 Star Wars film Solo: A Star Wars Story, suffered an aneurysm that caused a subarachnoid haemorrhage, an uncommon type of stroke, in 2011, shortly after finishing filming the first season of Game of Thrones.

“In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. I asked the medical staff to let me die,” says English actress Emilia Clarke. (Photo source: Wireimage_Getty Images)

Two weeks after her brain surgery, she could not remember her name and “nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic” she wrote in an essay for The New Yorker.

“In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. I asked the medical staff to let me die. My job – my entire dream of what my life would be – centred on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost,” she added. 

Thankfully, after about a week back in the intensive care unit the aphasia passed, and she was able to speak again. Clarke has since set up SameYou, a charity that aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.

American actor Sharon Stone, who gained international fame after portrayiing Catherine Tramell in Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct, was rushed to the hospital in 2001 for a stroke that caused a “massive brain haemorrhage”

Sharon Stone told American digital and print magazine The Hollywood Reporter that it has been “a humbling journey”. (Photo source: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

After having bled in her brain for nine days, Stone went through a long recovery from the typical symptoms of aphasia, spending two years learning to walk and talk again. “I came home from that stroke-stuttering, and I couldn’t read for two years.”

Stone told American digital and print magazine The Hollywood Reporter that it has been “a humbling journey”, referencing that she had a hard time with her lines when she was on Law & Order. “I can talk about it now because I’m okay now,” she added.

If you know someone with aphasia, please get them in touch with Aphasia SG through its sign-up sheet here or click here to check out its services.

Join the conversations on TheHomeGround Asia’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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