What Is Aphasia & How Does It Affect the Ability to Communicate?
About 2 million Americans are affected by aphasia. But only 7% of people have heard of it, according to the 2020 National Aphasia Awareness Survey.
"Diagnosis and treatment of aphasia are key for maintaining a person's quality of life, so it's important to know the signs of this communication disorder and seek prompt care if it's suspected," says Dr. Joseph Masdeu, neurologist at Houston Methodist. "When it comes to treatment of aphasia, the earlier the better."
Aphasia is a language disorder resulting from brain damage that's occurred to areas responsible for speech production and language comprehension.
The most common cause of aphasia is stroke — when a blood vessel to the brain becomes blocked or ruptures. The resulting lack of nutrients and oxygen to the brain can damage brain cells.
"If damage occurs in the brain's language centers or networks, it impairs the function of these areas, making it difficult for a person to communicate effectively with others," says Dr. Masdeu.
Aphasia can also be caused by Alzheimer's disease or frontotemporal dementia, a brain tumor, infection or serious head injury.
"Individuals with common types of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease, often have mild aphasia," says Dr. Masdeu. "There is also a more rare type of frontotemporal dementia called primary progressive aphasia, which is characterized by a currently irreversible cognitive decline in the area of the brain that controls language."
"The brain damage that leads to aphasia affects a person's ability to communicate thoughts and understand what others are trying to communicate," says Dr. Masdeu. "This language impairment can range from mild to severe, based on the extent of the damage and the underlying cause of it."
Aphasia symptoms include:
- Speaking through short, incomplete sentences
- Eliminating words like "and" and "the" from sentences
- Speaking through long, complete sentences that don't make sense
- Using incorrect or unnecessary words or sounds
- Having trouble understanding the speech of others
- Having difficulties writing or reading sentences
These symptoms can, of course, significantly affect a person's quality of life, leading to issues in both personal and professional life. This is why it's critical to be aware of these signs and seek care if aphasia is suspected.
The mainstay of aphasia treatment is speech therapy.
The goals of speech therapy for aphasia include:
- Preventing further loss of language skills
- Recovering skills already lost
- Learning new ways to communicate
"The brain damage caused by stroke or a head injury can heal to some extent, and — after recovering from the initial cause of the damage — speech therapy can be used to help restore a person's ability to communicate," says Dr. Masdeu.
When aphasia is related to dementia, though, the goals of treatment shift toward slowing cognitive decline and using speech therapy to teach the individual alternative forms of communication as needed.
"Regardless of the underlying cause, early treatment for aphasia is key," adds Dr. Masdeu.
Studies have found that speech therapy is most helpful when started soon after brain injury or when cognitive decline is first noticed, so it's important to seek evaluation and treatment for aphasia as early as possible.
Learning how to adapt to the language impairments associated with aphasia isn't just important for the individual, it's also important for the individual's family members and friends.
Whatever you do, don't leave your loved one or friend with aphasia out of the conversation. Instead, use these tips to communicate with him or her:
- Speak in short, clear sentences and repeat key words
- Give the person plenty of time to express their thoughts
- Try to keep conversations one-on-one
- Avoid correcting the person's errors and ask specific follow-up questions instead
- Support alternative forms of communication, such as drawing, writing or gesturing
- Avoid having conversations amid distracting background noise