When a close friend of mine first started telling me about her mother’s sudden odd changes in behavior, my immediate thought was that they must be signs of Alzheimer’s. Hers seemed to be a gradual decline, one that began no more than two years ago, and as I saw her every now and then, I noticed more and more how she was withdrawing, depriving us of her warm, sociable disposition.
At the same time, though, my friend’s mother was still very cognizant of her surroundings. She didn’t seem confused about where she was, or who we were. With her inability to adequately express her thoughts, it was hard to know what she was thinking or feeling. Though English is not her first language, she was always able to converse with family and friends. But as her condition worsened, she used English less and returned to her native Japanese. Gradually, that too began to disappear, except for a few familiar songs that she would sing with her children.
After many tests and office visits, her doctors ruled out Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, they diagnosed her with aphasia. It’s a communication disorder that neither my friend nor I had heard of before, and yet with an estimated 1 million people affected in the US, the National Aphasia Association deems it more prevalent than Parkinson’s disease or muscular dystrophy.
I learned that we were not alone in our unfamiliarity with the condition. In 2012, members of the Aphasia Institute of Toronto walked around the city and asked people at random what they knew of the disorder, which yielded disheartening results.
As June is “National Aphasia Awareness Month” in the US, the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association is carrying out a national awareness campaign, sharing communication tips and information about the disorder. Aphasia causes language impairments, affecting all aspects of communication. While it results from damage to parts of the brain—most commonly through a stroke or traumatic brain injury—it does not affect intelligence.
The degree of language dysfunction can vary, which is why it’s essential to know the other types of aphasia in order to recognize its symptoms. When there is almost total impairment of all four language modalities (i.e., speaking, writing, reading, listening), the condition is referred to as global aphasia, the most severe form.
The National Stroke Association provides many resources to help people who know someone with aphasia, including communication advice written by experts and tips written by adults who are living with aphasia. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke, “language therapy should begin as soon as possible and be tailored to the individual needs of the patient.” Research is ongoing, with hopes that scientists can soon find a method of treatment that will enable people to fully recover their language skills. Until then, it’s important to learn to recognize signs of this condition, spread the word, and find ways to help people with aphasia feel comfortable and connected to their loved ones.
– Seimi Rurup