Have you heard of Parkinson’s Disease? What about Cerebral Palsy or Muscular Dystrophy? Chances are you’ve heard of these disorders or know some basic facts about them. What about Aphasia? Although, it affects one million Americans and is more common than the diseases I just mentioned, most people have never heard of it.
June is National Aphasia Awareness Month and a great opportunity to educate the public on a common, but rarely understood disorder.
Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain and most commonly from a stroke. We know that older adults are more likely to suffer strokes and as a result, have aphasia. But brain injuries resulting in aphasia may also arise from head trauma, from brain tumors or from infections.
As Director of Rehabilitative Medicine at Hebrew SeniorLife, I often work with patients recovering from strokes and learning to live with aphasia. It is important to understand that aphasia does not affect an individual’s intelligence. A person with aphasia may have difficulty retrieving words and names, but their intelligence is intact. Aphasia can sometimes be confused with Alzheimer’s disease or mental disability, but for people with aphasia, it is the ability to access ideas and thoughts through language that is disrupted – not the ideas and thoughts themselves.
While a person can have aphasia without having a physical disability, most people also have weakness or paralysis of their right leg and right arm. This is because when a person acquires aphasia it is usually due to damage on the left side of the brain, which controls movements on the right side of the body.
Aphasia therapy varies depending on the individual patient’s needs and wishes. At Hebrew SeniorLife, we work with patients and families to determine the right approach, and therapy will usually change as progress is made. In general, therapies are either impairment-based or communication-based. For impairment-based therapies, the focus is on using/the use of specific listening, speaking, reading and writing skills to enhance language. In communication-based therapies, speech therapists utilize more natural interactions, such as real life conversation, to enhance communication. Participation/support from caregivers is encouraged.
While patients living with aphasia face numerous challenges in daily life, therapies directed toward improving communication are constantly being studied and evolving. The knowledge that comes with National Aphasia Awareness Month can also be a great tool for care-givers and produce more support for patients.