Aphasia is a condition that affects people’s ability to communicate. There are several different types of aphasia, which is usually caused by damage to an area on the left side of the brain that controls language and comprehension. Depending on the underlying cause, some people can recover from aphasia, but other types of aphasia are progressive and degenerative. Most people with aphasia are middle age or older, although children can have the condition, too. About 2 million people in the United States currently have aphasia, according to the National Aphasia Association, and around 180,000 Americans develop the condition each year.
Hugo Botha, a Mayo Clinic neurologist who specializes in cognitive and language problems, says aphasia is not a disease but “a collection of symptoms, and a term to reflect they have a language problem, and then you have to go hunting to figure out why they have aphasia.”
Those who suffer from aphasia usually have trouble saying words, completing sentences or understanding speech. Their words may sound garbled or slurred. Sometimes the speech is what doctors call telegraphic, with very simple sentence structure. Instead of “I’m going over here,” someone with aphasia might say, “I go here.”
A sudden onset of aphasia is one of the most common signs of stroke. If you notice that you or someone around you is suddenly having speech problems, call 911 right away, because getting treatment is critical and can lessen long-term aphasia and other problems caused by the brain damage from stroke.
Depending on the type, people who have aphasia are often able to think clearly but may not find the words they want to say — like trying to remember words in another language that you studied long ago. But aphasia is more serious than having trouble recalling the name of the last book you read or your neighbor’s daughter. “We all have those tip-of-the-tongue moments all the time,” says Borna Bonakdarpour, a neurology professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, but aphasia is different. “It happens consistently. It affects their job. They may have difficulty reading email or texts or talking to people. It affects their daily activities.”
Stroke is the most common cause of aphasia in the United States, Botha says. A transient ischemic attack (TIA), which happens when blood flow to the brain is temporarily blocked, can also cause short-term aphasia that goes away within a few hours or days. A TIA should be taken seriously, with a trip to the emergency room, because it’s often a sign of a more serious stroke to come. A severe head injury from, say, an accident can cause aphasia, as can a tumor. Aphasia can also develop slowly, usually caused by a progressive brain disease such as Alzheimer’s or another neurological disorder.