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With Bruce Willis sidelined, Nuvance neurosurgeon says aphasia is sign of other disease

 Bruce Willis speaking at the 2018 San Diego Comic Con International, for "Glass", at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.
Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America
Bruce Willis speaking at the 2018 San Diego Comic Con International, for "Glass", at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.

Bruce Willis’ family says the “Die Hard” star is stepping away from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia – leaving many curious to learn more about the condition.

The announcement from the 67-year-old Willis’ family Wednesday was received with shock and sadness by movie fans.

Nuvance Health’s Dr. Jonathon Lebovitz specializes in neurosurgery, spine surgery, and endovascular surgery. By way of disclosure, Nuvance has been a WAMC underwriter.

“Aphasia is a disorder where you have difficulty with communication. It can be either written or spoken language, can be both. It can be partial difficulties, the difficulty with expressing yourself, with difficulty speaking, or it could be with difficulty with understanding what you're being told (but) that you're able to speak normally, it can be a combination of the two. It can have similar effects with being able to read and write, as well," he said.

All of which would pose a problem for an actor who’s expected to read and memorize a script and then act out the scenes described.

Willis rose to fame thanks to the 1988 film “Die Hard.” He plays John McClane, a New York City police officer who saves his wife and other hostages from German terrorists. Willis has also starred in notable films like “Pulp Fiction” and “The Sixth Sense.”

Dr. Lebovitz says aphasia is commonly a symptom of another disease process.

“It could be one of the first signs or symptoms of someone who's having a stroke. It can be a sign or symptom of things like a brain tumor or bleeding in the brain and it can also be a sign or symptom of some neurodegenerative diseases. Things like dementia, Frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.”

The symptoms depend on what type of aphasia someone has.

“It could be something where you're unable to speak at all, which is more of a what's called a global Aphasia. It could be something called an expressive Aphasia, where you're able to speak, but you're not speaking clearly or fluently," he said. "There can be more of an expressive Aphasia, where I'm able to understand everything that you're telling me, but I'm not able to find the correct words, and I will respond in a non-fluid or inappropriate way.”

The doctor says people are commonly diagnosed around the age of 70 and patients deteriorate as it progresses, though it does not decrease lifespan by itself. There are some treatment options:

“You do speech therapy with a speech language pathologist and work on whatever deficits that person has. In addition to working on the cause of the aphasia, if it's a stroke, treating the stroke. If it’s a brain tumor, working on a brain tumor procedure or surgery. If it’s one of these other neurodegenerative diseases - what other medicines and treatments can help stall or decrease the symptoms of their primary problem? Because, for most people, aphasia is not the primary diagnosis, but it can be one of the primary or most debilitating symptoms.”

Although his time on the screen is being cut short, Willies will long be remembered for his prolific acting career.