Losing language: What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a disorder that results in loss of language, usually a result of damage to the parts of the brain that are responsible for language.

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According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, aphasia most commonly presents suddenly after an injury or stroke, but can also develop slowly in connection with a brain tumor or progressive disease.

There are three main categories of aphasia, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Expressive aphasia, also known as Broca’s or non-fluent aphasia, allows a person to understand what people are saying, but makes it difficult for the person to speak themselves.
  • Comprehensive aphasia, also called Wernicke’s or fluent aphasia, typically is characterized by someone speaking in long, complex sentences that don’t make sense and include unnecessary or invented words. This aphasia also makes it difficult to understand others.
  • Global aphasia results from extensive damage to the brain’s language centers, and is characterized by poor comprehension and difficulty speaking.

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The National Aphasia Association estimates that the disorder is more common that Parkinson’s Disease, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, saying nearly 180,000 Americans acquire the disorder each year, and a total of 2 million Americans are affected by it.

Aphasia therapy aims to help the person communicate by using remaining language abilities or restoring as much language as possible, as well as learning other ways to communicate, such as sign language or use of electronic devices.

The National Aphasia Association offers tips for communicating with a person who has aphasia:

  • Maintain eye contact and watch body language the person is using.
  • Talk in a quiet place, without any television or radio.
  • Keep words simple, but talk to the person as an adult.
  • Use shorter sentences, and repeat key words you want understood.
  • Slow down your speech.
  • Ask “yes” and “no” questions that may be easier for the person to answer.
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