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Bruce Willis diagnosis shines light on condition affecting 120,000 mostly older Australians

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It was announced earlier this week that Hollywood actor Bruce Willis, famous for his roles in cult classics such as Pulp Fiction, Die Hard, The Sixth Sense and The Fifth Element, is retiring aged 67 after being diagnosed with the condition aphasia, a neurological condition affecting around 120,000, predominately older Australians.

The condition, often following a stroke or head injury, is triggered by damage to parts of the brain which control language and speech production, with symptoms including difficulty to express oneself fluently in both spoken and written form.

Common symptoms include:

  • Speaking in short or incomplete sentences.
  • Speaking in sentences that don’t make sense.
  • Substituting one word for another or one sound for another.
  • Speaking unrecognisable words.
  • Not understanding other people’s conversation.
  • Writing sentences that don’t make sense.

Sometimes, a person experiencing the condition may have difficulty understanding others, but more often than not a person can understand still comprehend language but struggle to respond appropriately.

Primary progressive aphasia is a form of the condition that develops slowly, and often is associated with the onset of dementia.

Willis’ family said in a statement on Wednesday that due to his noticeable “cognitive decline”, they sadly had no other option than to begin winding up his legendary career.

“This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support,” the statement read.

Highlighting the stigma often faced by persons living with degenerative neurological condition, organisers of the satirical Golden Raspberry Awards (‘The Razzies’) have backflipped over their recent hit on the actor for potentially conflating his aphasia symptoms with poor quality acting.

The award organisers had created their own special category, titled “worst performance by Bruce Willis in a 2021 movie”, in order to poke fun at Willis for his portrayal of futurist military general James Harder in the 2021 action/sci-fi film Cosmic Sin, which received a measly 3 per cent rating on film review website Rotten Tomatoes.

Razzie co-founders Mo Murphy and John Wilson said in a joint statement that they rescinded the award after news of Willis’ condition surfaced.

“If someone’s medical condition is a factor in their decision making and/or their performance, we acknowledge that it is not appropriate to give them a Razzie.”

New Australian research project offers some hope for restorative therapies

Australian researchers have been working tirelessly to produce treatments for the debilitating condition, which according to the Stroke Foundation affects one in three stroke survivors.

Whilst many persons experiencing aphasia benefit from speech therapy, some will regress over the long term.

Dr Jessica Campbell, speech pathologist and post-doctoral research fellow at the Queensland Aphasia Research Centre, was awarded the inaugural Lady Southey Aphasia Research Grant of $99,869 over two years by the Stroke Foundation in February.

Dr Jessica Campbell, speech pathologist and researcher at the Queensland Aphasia Research Centre, is researching the effectiveness of technology based therapies for long-term restoration of communication skills in those experiencing aphasia.

The grant will be used to support her latest research project called CHAT-Maintain: Maintaining language and quality of life gains with low-dose technology-delivered aphasia therapy.  

This project will trial the effectiveness of a six-month course of technology-based treatment to maintain the gains in communication skills acquired through traditional therapies – which are often successful in the short-term but benefits are often not retained long-term.

Campbell hopes that her research will help improve the quality of live of the thousands of Australian’s who live with the challenges of the condition every day.

“Aphasia increases the risk of social isolation and depression and often makes it difficult or impossible to people to return to work,” she said.   

The stigma and detrimental social effects experienced by persons with the condition remains front of mind for Campbell, driving her passion for developing new treatments for the condition.

“It is a difficulty with language, not a loss of intelligence.

“We want to achieve long-term improvement to ultimately improve quality of life.” 

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