Sometimes, through the miracle of top-notch plastic surgery and medical access, celebrities can seem to barely age. You need only to look to discussions of Paul Rudd or Keanu Reeves for this. A sort of fallacy can even develop from this, where celebrities seem to be stuck in time, preserved as if the immortality of fame somehow can be channeled physically as well. This can make it all the more shocking when someone that holds a prominent place in the collective consciousness is struck down in brutal fashion by the ravages of age. Even more so when the ailment is mental, and they still appear as we remember them on the outside, almost as if they’re being made a macabre example of by time itself.

Today’s news about Bruce Willis seems to have felt that way for many. Especially as someone who hadn’t seemed to display the physical signs of distress that any muckraking publication would have been all over. As we’ve learned, Willis is the victim of a particularly devastating form of mental decay, known as aphasia. His family shared today that he will be stepping away from acting because of his struggles with the condition, but aphasia might not have the immediate recognition of other ailments.

Aphasia is a horrific thing to develop or to see develop. It’s literally the kind of thing you would develop in a nightmare. It’s a result of damage to the parts of the brain that handle language processing, and can come from either trauma like a stroke, or develop slowly as a result of a disease or tumor. Willis’ family has not shared the cause. They also have not shared the specific type of aphasia he is suffering from, which of course, is their right. There are two main classifications, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders: fluent and nonfluent aphasia. Both significantly impair someone’s ability to communicate, but in different manners.

Brain with areas contributing to aphasia highlighted

Bertyhell

Areas of the brain that are linked to aphasia when damaged.

Nonfluent aphasia is probably what you would more immediately imagine in terms of communication issues. It’s an inability of the affected person to express themselves through language, though, most evilly, they usually do not have issues understanding others or even understanding what they WANT to say. For example, with Broca’s aphasia, the most common form of nonfluent aphasia, someone who might want to ask for you to pick up eggs at the store might say something like “store eggs.” There are other varieties, like global aphasia, which results in broad difficulty speaking or understanding language, or anomic aphasia, where the person has extreme difficulty naming things and objects, even if they know exactly what they are.

Fluent aphasia is even more unsettling, and a reminder of just how complicated and fragile the human brain is. The most common form is Wernicke’s aphasia, where the person speaks comfortably and in a natural rhythm and length, but the sentences spoken may be confusing or nonsensical. They may add unnecessary or unrelated words, or even inject completely made-up words into an otherwise normal sentence. An example given by the NIDCD is the following sentence: "You know that smoodle pinkered and that I want to get him round and take care of him like you want before."

For any person, it’s a horrific thing to go through, and likely deeply traumatic for their friends and family. For an actor, and one whose voice and iconic lines are burned into much of the population’s memory, it’s particularly ghastly to imagine or witness. As someone who’s witnessed similar mental decay in my life, I can only wish Willis and his family the best, and take some refuge in the great repository of media and memories of Willis before this tragic development available to revisit.

Top Image: Alan Light/Pixabay

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