What is aphasia? Bruce Willis, Emilia Clarke and others who have suffered from symptoms

As action star Bruce Willis retires after his diagnosis, we take a look at more celebrities who have talked about their experience of the debilitating disorder

Aphasia has led to Bruce Willis's retirement from acting, while 'Game of Thrones' star Emilia Clarke said she feared it would ruin her life and career. Photo: Yui Mok, AP
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After years spent honing his skills as cinema’s all-action hero, Bruce Willis’s announcement that he is retiring from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia has come as a shock to his fans and peers alike.

“To Bruce's amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” said his family on Instagram. “As a result of this and with much consideration, Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.”

What is aphasia?

According to the NHS website: “Aphasia is when a person has difficulty with their language or speech. It’s usually caused by damage to the left side of the brain, for example, after a stroke. People with aphasia often have trouble with the four main ways people understand and use language. These are: reading, listening, speaking, typing or writing.

“Speaking problems are perhaps the most obvious, and people with aphasia may make mistakes with the words they use.”

Although Willis’s family have not disclosed whether he suffered a stroke or brain damage, the symptoms of the disorder have made it impossible for him to memorise and deliver his lines. The actor, 67, had, in recent years, started wearing an earpiece on set so he could be fed his lines.

‘Game of Thrones’ star Emilia Clarke says she ‘wanted to die’

The British actress, 35, who played Daenerys Targaryen in hit show Game of Thrones, has spoken about her own battle with the condition after a stroke in 2011.

She revealed she suffered an aneurysm that caused a stroke and subarachnoid haemorrhage soon after wrapping up the first season. It left her requiring brain surgery and unable to remember her name.

"I was suffering from a condition called aphasia, a consequence of the trauma my brain had suffered," she wrote in an essay for The New Yorker in 2019. “In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. I asked the medical staff to let me die. My job — my entire dream of what my life would be — centred on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost.”

The actress said that for her, the condition was temporary: “I was sent back to the ICU and, after about a week, the aphasia passed. I was able to speak."

Sharon Stone and Randy Travis had to relearn to read and speak

Oscar-nominated actress Sharon Stone has spoken publicly about the aphasia-like symptoms she experienced after suffering a stroke in 2001 that caused a cerebral haemorrhage.

"I came home from that stroke stuttering, couldn't read for two years,” the Basic Instinct star told ABC News. “It's been a humbling journey. I was on Law & Order ... and I had a hard time with my lines. I can talk about it now because I'm OK now ... I feel really good about talking and having my full vocabulary.”

Country star Randy Travis has also spoken about the aphasia-like symptoms he experienced, after which he had to relearn how to speak, following a stroke in July 2013.

"When we first returned home, I could barely speak at all,” he wrote in his 2019 memoir. “We spent three months in speech therapy before I learned to say the letter 'A.' Eventually, after about a year and a half, I could say 'yup,' 'nope,' and 'bathroom.' I could also say 'I love you' and a few other phrases but not much more. All this was extremely frustrating for me; I felt like I was trapped inside the shell of my body."

Updated: May 31, 2023, 11:28 AM