What Is Aphasia?

Aphasia is a communication disorder caused by any one of several medical conditions, including strokes, head trauma, dementia, brain tumors, and certain neurological disorders such as epilepsy. These conditions can damage parts of the brain involved in spoken and written communication. Persons with aphasia have a reduced ability to read, write, speak, or understand language. Aphasia exists in a number of forms, some relatively mild and some quite severe. It is most common in middle-aged or older adults that have had strokes, but can occur at any point in a person’s lifetime, usually from accident or injury. 

It is estimated that approximately one million Americans have aphasia, with 180,000 new diagnoses each year. If you or a loved one is experiencing difficulties with language, see your Baptist Health medical provider.

What Are Aphasia Symptoms?

The following symptoms are common in persons with aphasia:

  • An inability to understand spoken or written language
  • Speech consisting of short and choppy or unintelligible sentences
  • Making nonsensical word substitutions in otherwise coherent sentences
  • Degraded reading and writing skills
  • Degraded math skills
  • Difficulties with personal expression
  • Lack of awareness with regard to communication disabilities

Symptoms tend to vary by individual, which has led to the identification of several distinct types of aphasia. The more prominent include:

  • Anomic aphasia: In this version of aphasia, speech is grammatically coherent but vague, because the speaker has trouble choosing words that convey the meaning of his or her sentences. 
  • Broca’s aphasia: Persons with Broca’s aphasia lack fluency, that is, their speech is labored and halting, often consisting of only a few words at a time. Broca’s patients often retain some degree of written and vocal comprehension. 
  • Global aphasia: Global aphasia is the most serious of all forms, with sufferers limited in speech and showing little or no understanding of spoken or written communication. 
  • Mixed non-fluent aphasia: Mixed non-fluent aphasia combines a lack of fluency with more limited written and vocal comprehension than Broca’s. 
  • Primary progressive aphasia: This is a gradual-onset form of aphasia, caused by tumor growth or a neurodegenerative disease rather than head trauma or a stroke. 
  • Wernicke’s aphasia: Wernicke’s aphasia is also called ‘fluent aphasia’, because patients retain the ability to speak in sentences but often with intrusive and misleading word choices. Reading and writing ability is also negatively affected.

Aphasia in any form can impact a person’s quality of life. Humans are social creatures heavily reliant on communication, so language disabilities leave their mark on relationships, livelihoods, and other aspects of daily living. 

What Causes Aphasia? 

Aphasia results from damage to the brain’s centers of communication. This damage can occur abruptly, by means of a stroke or head injury, or more gradually, by means of a tumor or a degenerative disease, such as dementia. Stroke is the most common cause. The National Aphasia Association estimates that between one-quarter to four-tenths of all stroke survivors develop a form of aphasia. 

Risk factors for aphasia vary by individual and also depend on unforeseen circumstances, such as the likelihood of a serious accident. However, steps taken to avoid a stroke, including healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress control, and tobacco cessation, also reduce the possibility of stroke-related aphasia.

How Is Aphasia Diagnosed?

Diagnosing aphasia requires several steps:

  • A physical and neurological exam
  • Strength test
  • Language-skills test
  • Imaging test, either magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or CT scan. 

The language-skills test focuses on basic communication abilities. Can the patient name everyday items? Hold a conversation? Repeat words and phrases? Understand an article he or she has read? Answer both binary (yes or no) and open-ended questions with sensible responses?

The imaging test pinpoints areas of the brain that may have suffered some form of damage. Evidence of injury to the brain’s communication centers can provide an organic basis for the patient’s aphasia. 

How Is Aphasia Treated?

Aphasia treatment relies on the following:

  • Speech and language rehabilitation: Depending on the nature and severity of a person’s aphasia, he or she may be able to relearn language and communication skills resulting from a medical disorder. Patients working with a speech pathologist in individual or group settings can often regain at least some of what they’ve lost, given ample time and effort. 
  • Specialized medications: Specialized medications focus on restoring brain health, through increased blood flow, improved healing, or restored neurotransmitters. Two such drugs, piracetam and memantine, have shown promise in limited studies. 
  • Brain stimulation: A relatively new form of treatment utilizes magnetic or low-current electricity to rejuvenate damaged brain cells. 

The outlook for an aphasia patient depends on numerous factors, including age, cause, and severity. The loss of language skills due to a stroke sometimes proves temporary. On the other hand, degenerative conditions, such as dementia, are irreversible, so language loss will be permanent. The hope here is that medications currently in development, when combined with speech therapy, will provide some degree of relief.

Learn More About Aphasia At Baptist Health

Aphasia is a medical condition that can have a long-lasting impact on how you live. If you or a loved one are experiencing communication difficulties, contact the Baptist Health Neurology providers to schedule an appointment. Persons with stroke symptoms should treat them as a medical emergency. Dial 911 or go to the nearest medical-emergency facility.

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