Why aphasia awareness matters—and what to know about this condition
About one million people in the U.S. currently have aphasia, and it’s estimated that nearly 180,000 Americans acquire the disorder every year. June is National Aphasia Awareness Month, highlighting a disorder that can be traumatic for those who have it, as well as for their loved ones. Bringing more recognition to this issue is an important step towards awareness and education. Continue reading to build your own knowledge.
Aphasia is a form of brain injury
Considered a language disorder, aphasia involves the loss of function when it comes to communication. This can include losing the ability to produce or understand verbal or written language.
Aphasia is caused by damage to one or more language areas of the brain, rather than limitations with vision or vocal cords. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the most common cause is stroke, which can cut off blood flow to parts of the brain. Aphasia can also result from traumatic brain injury, a tumor, or a progressive neurological disease such as dementia.
The NIH notes that most people who have aphasia are middle-aged or older, but it can impact anyone, even young children.
There are different types of aphasia
The two broad categories for aphasia are fluent and nonfluent. Those with a fluent type of aphasia may speak in long sentences that have the cadence of regular speech, but the words may be out of order or made up. Those with nonfluent aphasia struggle to get words out, tend to speak in very short sentences, and often omit words.
Within these two categories are many different types of aphasia with symptoms that may overlap, which is why it requires an experienced clinician like a speech-language pathologist to diagnose aphasia and formulate an individualized treatment plan.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA), testing for aphasia involves evaluating several levels of comprehension, including how well someone understands directions, stories, and questions, as well as their ability to produce words and sentences in both written and spoken form.
Recovery can be complex.
The first step in recovery is addressing the underlying cause of damage to the brain, for example, treating the stroke and stabilizing the patient.
The NIH adds that the next step is assessing other chronic health issues, as well as mental health so that treatment can address the full range of contributing factors. Caregiver education and social support have also been shown to significantly impact a person’s recovery outcome.
Each person experiencing aphasia will have a tailored treatment plan developed in collaboration with their speech-language professional. However, the NIH reports that shorter and more intense sessions tend to lead to faster improvement than longer and less intense treatment.
Simple strategies to communicate with a person who has aphasia
The ASLHA has some recommendations for communicating with someone who has aphasia, without overwhelming them:
- Gently get the person’s attention before talking, and keep your voice at a normal level. It’s common to speak louder when you think people don’t understand.
- Keep words simple but adult — don’t “talk down” when speaking.
- Slow down and give the person time to understand what you’re saying.
- Try not to finish someone’s sentences if you feel they’re taking too long to talk.
- Use short sentences and repeat key words. Try using “yes” and “no” questions more often.
- Consider using alternative forms of communication, such as pictures, drawing, and gestures.
- Get rid of distractions, such as a TV playing in the background, so the person can concentrate more fully.
In general, building more awareness about aphasia and its causes can be helpful for showing greater understanding of the disorder — not just in June, but all year round.
For more resources, visit the website of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.