June 6, 2013

By Diane Walker, RN, MS, CSA

June is National Aphasia Awareness Month. Most people have never heard of aphasia until someone they love suffers a stroke, has a brain injury, or develops a progressive disease like dementia. If someone you love was recently diagnosed with aphasia, you probably have a lot of questions. Here’s are some of the things you need to know:

What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a disorder that impairs a person’s ability speak and understand language. Often, people with aphasia also have trouble reading and writing. In acute aphasia, between 25 and 40 percent of stroke victims suffer from aphasia, but it can also be caused by brain tumors or other kinds of brain injuries. Progressive aphasia may be caused by a brain tumor, infection or dementia. Aphasia affects about one in 250 people.

How is aphasia diagnosed?

Typically, aphasia is diagnosed by a neurologist. The doctor will perform a series of neurological tests in order to diagnose someone with aphasia, including asking the person to answer questions, name objects, and follow commands.

What are the types of aphasia?

No classification of individuals into subgroups is adequate because there is usually a large variation in symptoms among persons with the same diagnosis.  Two commonly used categories of aphasia are fluent and nonfluent. Damage to the temporal lobe of the brain may result in a common type of fluent aphasia called Wernicke’s aphasia. People with this type of aphasia may speak in long, nonsensical sentences that include unnecessary or made-up words.

Broca’s aphasia is a common type of non-fluent aphasia, and it results from damage to the brain’s frontal lobe. People with Broca’s aphasia often speak in short phrases that make sense but are very difficult for the person to produce. A person with Broca’s aphasia might eliminate small words like “is,” “and” and “the,” and articles like “I,” “he,” and “she.” They may also have right sided weakness or arm or leg paralysis because the frontal lobe is important for movement.

What is the treatment?

Aphasia is mainly treated with speech and language therapy. The therapy methods are based on where in the brain the damage is located, and what the extent of the damage is. Therapy for aphasia aims to improve a person’s life by helping them communicate better, and restore their language abilities as much as possible. People with aphasia who are supported by family, and who are motivated typically see the most improvement from therapy.

What can I do to help?

Aphasia can be frustrating both for people living with the disease and for their loved ones. Some tips for communicating with someone with aphasia are:

  •     Don’t talk down to the person. Maintain a natural, adult-like style of conversation, and don’t raise your voice or correct the person’s speech.
  •     Simplify conversation by using short, uncomplicated sentences.
  •     If the person gets confused, try repeating key words or writing them down.
  •     Try other methods of communication, such as gestures, pointing, and drawing. You may want to consider using a picture or writing board and index cards with symbols or pictures on them.
  •     Minimize distractions such as the TV and radio to help the person concentrate.
  •     Be patient. Allow the person extra time to talk, and work with them to help them get their meaning across.
  •     Encourage communication. Ask the person questions and involve them in family decisions.

Help the person stay active and involved in society. Stroke support groups can be a great way to keep the person social, and also offer them an opportunity to practice communication skills. Find a support group here.

What are additional resources?

To learn more about aphasia, visit:

    The National Aphasia Association

    The Mayo Clinic’s aphasia page

    The National Institute of Health’s aphasia page