What Will Bruce Willis’ Aphasia Diagnosis Mean for the Veteran Actor?
What Will Bruce Willis’ Aphasia Diagnosis Mean for the Veteran Actor?
Swathi Kiran and Elizabeth Hoover of BU’s Aphasia Resource Center explain the neurological disorder and what lies ahead for the Die Hard star
An unwritten rule of action movies is that you should never count out the hero, no matter how dire the straits they’re in. Fans of Bruce Willis, star of the Die Hard franchise, The Sixth Sense, and Pulp Fiction (among many, many other movies), hope the 67-year-old actor has one more fight in him. In coordinated statements posted to Instagram, members of Willis’ family, including ex-wife Demi Moore and daughter Rumer, recently announced that the action star had been diagnosed with aphasia, a neurological disorder, and would step away from acting.
“This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support,” Moore wrote in her post. Tributes from Willis’ fans and fellow actors poured in, celebrating an icon of American cinema whose body of work spans more than 40 years.
For many, it was their first time hearing about the condition, leaving lots of unanswered questions: What, exactly, is aphasia? How does it manifest and is it treatable? Will Willis ever appear on screen again?
For answers, The Brink turned to two experts from Boston University’s College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College, which is nationally renowned for its aphasia research and treatment programs: Swathi Kiran, director of BU’s Aphasia Research Laboratory and a professor of neurorehabilitation, and Elizabeth Hoover, clinical director of BU’s Aphasia Resource Center (where Kiran is research director) and a clinical professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences. The Aphasia Research Laboratory aims to better understand language processing and communication following brain damage, while the Aphasia Resource Center offers free weekly group and individual treatments and support meetings to dozens of individuals (and their families) living with a condition that is less rare than you might think.
With Swathi Kiran and Elizabeth Hoover
The Brink: As concisely as you can explain it, what is aphasia?
Hoover: Aphasia is defined as a language disorder that results from damage to areas of the brain that control how we formulate and how we understand language. It’s a far more common condition than most people realize. Conservative estimates say that 2.5 million people in America are living with aphasia, which is more common than Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and ALS combined. Importantly, aphasia, because it disrupts how we understand and how we express language—both spoken and in writing—affects how we communicate. Communication is central to how we share our stories in the world and how we interact with other people. One of the big misconceptions about aphasia is that it impacts cognition—the way somebody thinks. Aphasia is a language disorder, not an intellectual disorder.
The Brink: What causes aphasia?
Kiran: In most cases, the cause of aphasia is stroke or hemorrhage to the brain. It’s something that’s a sudden onset, an acquired brain event, and one-third of all stroke survivors end up having aphasia. Another sudden onset is that somebody’s in a car accident and has a traumatic brain injury. Another cause is in people who have tumors, and they end up having aphasia. A different cause is when the symptoms worsen over time; they start with language problems, and it’s a gradual change that happens over time. That particular condition is called primary progressive aphasia. In that case, by the time the disease progresses over the years, the person will end up having cognitive effects as well, like dementia.
With stroke aphasia it’s easier to know the cause, because somebody has a sudden event of the brain and usually a neurologist can diagnose that when they look at a brain scan. In primary progressive aphasia, since it’s a neurodegenerative disease, we don’t fully know what causes it. What usually happens is that the symptoms precede the diagnosis, because the person notices the symptoms and they worsen over time.
The Brink: Do we know how Willis developed aphasia and which type he has?
Kiran: Based on the little information that has been released, we don’t know if he has had a stroke or if he has not had a stroke. It’s hard to comment on that. What’s clear for us to say is what he is going through right now.
The Brink: What is Willis likely going through, and why would someone with aphasia need to step away from a career in movies, as his family has announced he is doing?
Hoover: If you think about language and how language is used by an actor, it’s easy to see why aphasia would pose a challenge. The core feature of every profile of aphasia is this difficulty with word retrieval. It’s also called anomia. That can present with hesitancies, latencies, or errors in being able to produce that word. It might be difficult to read or understand scripts, speak with fluency, and understand what your fellow actors are saying.
The Brink: How do we treat aphasia? Is there a cure?
Kiran: Unfortunately, there is no cure for aphasia. Fortunately, traditional treatments for aphasia are proven to be quite effective: traditional speech-language therapy, which involves one-on-one interaction with a therapist; just practicing and exercising drills every day has been shown to be quite clinically significant in terms of improving outcomes. People who receive therapy go on to lead successful, happy lives. It’s a long road to recovery, but the brain, especially after a stroke or a hemorrhage, is quite plastic, and rehabilitation harnesses that plasticity. This is also true in the cases of primary progressive aphasia where the condition declines over time. There’s promising new data being published showing that such structured rehabilitation can slow the disease down or even stall it.
The Brink: BU is home to one of the world’s leading centers for studying aphasia and supporting those who have it. Tell me about your research and if you’ve seen any promising developments in terms of improving diagnoses and treatments for individuals with aphasia.
Kiran: The research we do is about harnessing that neuroplasticity. I think the most important thing that we’re trying to find out and understand is how much recovery a person can have right after their stroke—which is actually a lot. Many people fully recover a few months after a stroke. And even if they didn’t, how much plasticity can be enabled through this rehabilitation as time goes by—and by time, I mean months and years—after the stroke. The brain needs a lot of repetition to learn, and the brain needs a lot more repetition to relearn. So, therapy can come in the form of one-on-one therapy and group therapy, and I’ve been involved in developing a software program at BU [Constant Therapy], where patients can download it on their phone and practice at home and still get a lot of therapy.
A lot of the one-on-one rehabilitation work is being done at BU, and we’re probably one of the most well-known rehabilitation centers that do this systematic, rigorous therapy for stroke survivors in the country. Our program is very well-regarded. And [rehabilitation] is currently the only way people can improve their abilities.
The Brink: Where would you start with Willis and his family, were they to walk into the Aphasia Resource Center?
Hoover: It starts with a really comprehensive evaluation looking at their individual profile of language communication difficulty, looking at the impact of the aphasia on their quality of life, so that we can understand the nuances of their profile. And then sitting down with them and looking at those meaningful goals. It’s about trying to build that critical amount of therapy, so looking at scheduling that individual therapy—again, nuanced and individualized for their goals—but also adding in some communication programming via the group treatments, and then certainly support groups for the caregivers and communication partner training. It’s about building this critical program that’s as intense as possible that will meet that minimum amount of practice. Finally, the Constant Therapy app and other computerized programs really will help boost that additional practice over the course of the week.
The Brink: Can you say more about the support you give to caretakers of individuals living with aphasia?
Kiran: The kind of support people need is very different at various points of the diagnosis and journey. Right after the diagnosis, it’s tremendously overwhelming and devastating for the loved one, as well as for the family members. They are continually overwhelmed by the number of things they realize they cannot do now. And for that reason, they need a lot of immediate support, like, how do I help my loved one communicate their basic needs? Then there’s grieving and getting over the loss of this independence that the person has. And then, as time goes by, it’s a sort of acceptance of what’s happening in their life. Now, how do I live successfully and make the best out of it?
The Brink: Will we ever see Willis on screen again?
Hoover: I hope so. I think it depends on his comfort with his language and on what type of a role he might want to play. From a personal perspective—and this is my opinion—one of the reasons that aphasia is so poorly understood and so poorly known in the public is because we don’t have a spokesperson. We don’t have the Michael J. Fox or the Muhammad Ali who’s out there saying, “This is what this condition is, and here’s how I’m living successfully with it.” I wonder if one of the reasons we haven’t had a spokesperson up until now is because there’s often some misconceptions about struggles with language, and these struggles are linked to cognition and intellect. I would love to see somebody brave enough to share their experiences of aphasia to the public and hopefully destigmatize it in that way.
A great article! I wonder if music is part of the therapy. I have a friend who is a gifted actor and plays the harmonica and piano and sings , has been diagnosed with Aphasia. When he encourages my daughter to play the piano like he always have done he is able to play and sing like he always has one would not know anything different. I know Bruce Willis has music talents too and wonder if his therapy involves music in any way. Music is therapeutic in general and for Aphasia patients who are musically inclined, I can see how it would be helpful.
I am so very happy that bruce is still able to think properly. Slowly that there is hope for improvement. He’s not alone and he has hope. Yipee ki yay m… f…..!
My sister had a severe stroke in March and we almost lost her but now she is home and she also is suffering from aphasia…she does her therapy every week and she is doing better but still has a long way to go….my family and I have watched Bruce in every movie he has been in and he is truly talented. Just keep up the good work Bruce and we are praying for you every day…God bless you and your family.
At the University of Pittsburgh the McGowan center for regenerative medicine is harvesting Nuero stem cells to implant in order to allow the body to repair itself with micro foot soldiers. Somebody please talk to the Willis family and begin talking to the McGowan center.
met you at samash music 48st you where buying some harmonicas. im a musician too
. get well god bless you
I’m saddened to learn that Bruce Willis has this condition. I feel optimistic for him ,however, based on what I just read about promising therapy at BU. That, combined with good friends, a loving family and a lot of prayers from fans , will help him recover.
Bruce Willis could be that advocate
First saw him in moonlighting with cybil
Shepherd , loved him then. Had a crush on him
In fact. Even bought his records wasn’t a fan of most of his films though. Wishing a very speedy recovery ❤️
I have watched Mr Willis ever since his Moonlighting days. I have also noticed that his last 4 movies have been so sad that I wondered out loud to family members “What is going on with Bruce?” He’s not even acting. He’s just saying words.” How sad I was to learn that what I said was so true. But the absolute saddest part was that the director, not his loving caring family stopped Mr Willis from acting. He said he couldn’t do this to Bruce anymore and refused to make any more films with him. Where was his family? Where was his family support? Hadn’t he made them enough money for them?
This whatever that is happening to Bruce Willis is almost beyond my comprehension.
My brother has aphasia from a stroke. I felt so helpless and terrified for him as much as he was. I could see the fear in his eyes. He knew and recognized everyone and his memory is as active as ever but not being able to talk or write meant that the medical staff, family and friends gave up on him. Not having the resources to continue with his therapy in South Africa was devastating for him and the family. It split us apart. This once enigmatic, caring and loving brother was placed in a poorly managed old age home by his daughter without his consent. My heart bleeds for my brother everyday.
As I read Mr Bruce Willis story, I understand his silence and feeling of helplessness he may personally go through. Luckily he has the loving support to walk with him with aphasia. Never stop doing whatever it takes to help him.
My father suffered from this after 3 strokes. He had trouble finding words and names, eventually became reclusive. I would talk with his wife on the phone he would listen but not speak. Didnt want me to visit..felling embarrassed from the condition. Heartbreaking. Its a all downhill, no upside from my perspective. Very sorry for Bruce’s family.
I hope and pray for your recovery very soon Missed you acting in your movies and hope you can fight this disease you have,,,,love you bruce willis,,,,❣
I was diagnosed with Aphasia after my 2nd stroke in 2015. It was disappointing and a struggle to be robbed of my life and identity. I couldn’t read, write nor follow simple commands. It took me 4 long years to find the strength to move forward with my new life. The emotionally and mental journey was very difficult. It’s been almost 8 years since my first stroke in 2014.
In 2018 I found Loyola Clinical’s in Baltimore, Maryland & Columbia, Maryland that provided me with the tools and training to regain my independence. I learned to read, write, comprehend and drive again.
Aphasia is for life but, managing life after stroke involves patience, therapy, dedication and support.
To anyone living with Aphasia, I sympathize with you and encourage you to find the strength and resources to move forward in life.
The aphasia no longer dictates or governed over my life
Where in Houston or TX area would have this?
And thank you, God Bless!
Thank you for being so positive about this disease. I’m so proud that you got to drive and read and write!!! You are amazing!! Big hugs!!!
Bruce Willis is a class act, and I feel strongly he will surprise everyone how soon he will recover. With the right therapy, family support , being around those who will encourage him he heal quicker than anyone thinks. My prayers go out to him and his family and may we all see Bruce filming soon OUT of retirement.
Love you Bruce keep fighting you can do this be strong ,wishing you a speedy recovery ❤️XX
My husband was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia in 2018. It’s rare, progressive and has no cure or real treatment. He is now mute, has difficulty understanding the spoken word and has increasing difficulty reading and writing. He had personality changes a few years before the speech was affected. The decline is gradual. Dementia follows. This condition is horrible for the patient and their family. God bless Bruce and his family and I hope they can use their wealth and fame to bring attention and increased research to these degenerative brain diseases.
I am heart broken at the news of Bruce Willis’s condition my prayers are with you and your family .
Someone needs to write a sci fi epic script draft that is about language and communication and cognitive realms, and start filming it with Bruce as the star and collaberator and a masterpiece could very well ensue
BW, I have faith. You will kick this things trash! Knowing
your enemy is the greatest weapon of defense. Remember;
Despair is your enemy; Never let her sleep. Keep her restless
and running in fear.
Sending prayers to Mr. Willis and his family. He is one of my favorite actors and my husband’s actor look alike, lol.
My father had primary progressive aphasia. He did not have a stroke nor did he have a head injury. Cause was unknown with studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. Family and friends supporting him is most important now. Changes and unfamiliar visitors and events not so good. Picture books of his favorite foods, restaurants, people, etc., are very helpful. Be strong, keep the music playing and keep smiling. Changes come quick!
Happy Holidays and may the New Year bring you peace and happiness
My husband of 45 years had primary progressive aphasia. He lost language, writing and reading skills. He was later diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia. His personality changed, became aggressive and eventually had to be placed in a facility. It’s heartbreaking, traumatic and shocking. Fortunately, the disease progressed quickly & his/our suffering did not linger. We donated his brain to research in hope of aiding research and cure.
Come on Man U can fight this I pray for you’re recovery just a old timer from England
I wish Bruce Willis a speedy recovery and return to acting. He has great family support and great rehab at Boston University. He is a fighter and I pray he will succede. Yippee kayay ***m**f*r
My husband has Primary progressive aphasia for ten years.The progressive part is accurate. He had some speech therapy in the early years, but, he refused to continue with it. At about eight years into the disease, he can no longer speak or comprehend speech.
. He,occasionally can write a word, no reading. Watches tv, plays words with friends, and is great at gin rummy. Still driving which presents a risk as he cannot communicate.He isi still intelligent. Knows what’s going on. Showers and dresses himself. Very independent.
This is a challenging and heartbreaking passage in our 57 years of marriage.
My grandma has Parkinson’s disease, she is about 75 years old it was detected 7 years ago. Right now it’s getting more difficult to live for her, because of stiff muscles she can’t even move. L-dopa and carbidopa medicines are given, but won”t give much relief. She can”t eat food and the skin is damaging forming ganglia. I thought this might be the last stage and the medications she was given did not help at all, so I started to do alot of research on natural treatments, I was introduced to Health Natural Centre and their Parkinson’s Herbal Protocol. She started on the Parkinson’s Treatment last year, her symptoms gradually diminished including my Tremors, Body Weakness and Muscle Pains. Reach them at health natural clinic. org , She is getting active again since starting this treatment, she is able to walk again ( down the street and back ) and able to ride her treadmill again!
I’m so glad to read a thoughtful, informative,& humanitarian approach to an article on Bruce Willis’ diagnosis. It must have been devastating for Mr. Willis and family and loved ones. I’m expect they are still struggling emotionally. I wish him and his loving ones every break, every prayer & all the help possible.
As a former nurse I have some understanding of the nature of this disease. It always seemed to me that frustration was the the biggest enemy of or progress with this condition. Anger follows the frustration & that makes things more complicated momentarily. There is so much more understanding & help available with it now than there was when I first started working with people with this condition in 1967-’69, when I first started working with it.
I will keep all of you in my prayers. And hope for the best for Mr. Willis. He’s still young enough to make some real progress like we saw with actor Kirk Douglas, father of Mike Douglas. I was always a big fan of Mr Willis Movie Career. I’ve seen all but a few of the last of franchises. Thanks for all the happy hours of entertainment!
It looks as though Bruce Willis has a strong support system. I can’t even imagine the frustration and resulting anger that knowing and being unable to communicate your needs, thoughts, desires and, yes, frustration.
When your life is about communication it must be particularly difficult to understand everything going on around you and be unable to participate.
Are there computer programs that can be used to improve communication? I’m thinking of one finger commands I’ve seen for physically challenged users.
Love and patience are the answer, what’s the question? May the Universe send love, patience and support to those taking on the task of caretakers.
My grandma has Lou Gehrig’s disease, she is about 75 years old it was diagnosed 2 years ago. Right now it’s getting more difficult to live for her, because of stiff muscles she can’t even move. Riluzole and Edaravone medicines are given, but won”t give much relief. She can”t eat food without choking. I thought this might be the last stage and the medications she was given did not help at all, so I started to do alot of research on natural treatments, I was introduced to Health Natural Centre and their ALS Herbal Protocol. She started on the ALS/MND Treatment last year, her symptoms gradually diminished including her vocal cord spasm, Body Weakness and Difficulty with swallowing. Reach them at health natural centre . org , She is getting active again since starting this treatment, she is able to walk again ( down the street and back )she have also resumed exercising to strengthen muscles!! God Bless all ALS Caregivers. Stay Strong, take small moments throughout the day to thank yourself, to love your self, and pray to whatever faith, star, spiritual force you believe in and ask for strength. I can personally vouch for these remedy but you would probably need to decide what works best for you.
Bruce Willis is special, he always was and he always will be. I was in love with his talent the day I saw him in the lighting, and I knew he wouldn’t make it big and bigger on the screen and he did. May God be with you, Bruce, God knows I am with you, even though you don’t know me.♥️
My first symptoms of ALS occurred in 2014, but was diagnosed in 2016. I had severe symptoms ranging from shortness of breath, balance problems, couldn’t walk without a walker or a power chair, i had difficulty swallowing and fatigue. I was given medications which helped but only for a short burst of time, then I decided to try alternative measures and began on ALS Formula treatment from Tree of Life Health clinic. It has made a tremendous difference for me (Visit w w w. healthcareherbalcentre .com I had improved walking balance, increased appetite, muscle strength, improved eyesight and others. ]