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The US National Institutes of Health tell us that over one million people suffer aphasia, the inability to understand or use language. About 1 in 5 people who suffer a stroke loses language skills, and the ability to understand spoken and written words.

Aphasia, the inability to understand or use language

The US National Institutes of Health tell us that in the United States alone, over one million people suffer aphasia, the inability to understand or use language. Most commonly a consequence of stroke, aphasia also occurs after traumatic injuries to the brain, brain tumors, and vascular damage in the brain. About 1 in 5 people who suffer a stroke loses language skills, and loss of the ability to understand spoken and written words is also common in Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Aphasia strikes all ethnic and racial groups, but it is especially common among persons of African descent. In the United States, African-Americans are twice likely to have a stroke, and twice as likely to develop aphasia if they have a stroke.

Stroke, however, is hardly the only cause of aphasia.

Various forms of aphasia (mentioned bellow) have these symptoms in common:

•    agrammatism, aninability to speak in grammatically correct sentences
•    difficulty in naming people, places, things, or objects, usually with greater difficulty in naming actions
•    dysprosody, abnormal inflection, intonation, or rhythm of speech
•    excessive creation and use of personal neologisms, words that only have meaning to the speaker
•    inability to comprehend spoken and written language
•    inability to speak or write words
•    inability to name objects
•    inability to pronounce words that is not due to muscle problems in the throat, tongue, or mouth
•    inability to read
•    inability to repeat phrases or sentences spoken
•    inability to speak spontaneously
•    inability to write
•    incomplete sentences
•    limited verbal output
•    paraphasia, substituting letters, syllables, or words, much like Pig Latin, only unintentionally
•    repetition of phrases

A quick guide to the types of aphasia disorders

Here is a quick guide to the types of aphasia disorders, the medical language of aphasia.

Broca's aphasia usually causes people who have it to speak haltingly. They understand language, but they have difficulty speaking, naming, and repeating. After the injury that causes Broca's aphasia, they may initially be mute, and usually they continue to have very little speech.

People who have Broca's aphasia may speak "telegraphically." They may use nouns and verbs with the articles a, an, or the, and without adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions. Difficulties writing usually occur along with the difficulties speaking, and it is more difficult to describe actions than it is to describe objects. A person who has Broca's aphasia who wants to you to take the dog out for a walk might say something on the lines of "Dog leash side."

In transcortical sensory aphasia, there is telegraphic speech without a problem repeating speech. For instance, if the person with transcortical sensory aphasia said "Dog leash side" and you inquired "Take the dog out?" then he or she could respond, "Take the dog out." A person with Broca's aphasia could not repeat what you said. Both Broca's aphasia and transcortical sensory aphasia are usually accompanied by paralysis or stiffness on one side of the body.

Wernicke's aphasia results in fluent speech with little meaning. People who have Wernicke's aphasia may have a style of communicating that is described as "paragrammatic." Their speech follows grammatical rules, but their sentences may not have any nouns or verbs. Or their speech may contain new words, known as neologisms, in place of conventional nouns and verbs.

A person who has Wernicke's aphasia who wants you to take the dog out for a walk might say, "Poodlewoodle take him round like the block before." People with Wernicke's aphasia speak glibly and usually without awareness that they are not making sense to those around them. This form of aphasia typically is not accompanied by paralysis or problems with motor skills.

Global aphasia is a complete or nearly complete loss of speech. It is almost always accompanied by paralysis on the right side of the body. Jargon aphasia occurs when the speaker uses fluent language that is unknown to the persons around him or her-persons from foreign countries have been misdiagnosed with jargon aphasia when they were unable to speak the local language and their native languages were extremely unfamiliar to their caretakers.

Acquired childhood aphasia can cause children simply to stop talking for a period of weeks or months. Once thought to be due to emotional trauma, this condition is now more often linked to subtle brain damage.

Treatment - teaching aphasia sufferers to sing their way to speech

Aphasia treatment. One of the most interesting therapies for aphasia is the process of patiently teaching aphasia sufferers to sing their way to speech.

The advantage of singing words rather than speaking them is that there is more time to think about a word you sing than there is to think about a word you speak. Singing words gives the person with aphasia a moment to rehearse the word he or she wants to express and to choose the right word.

In this method of treating aphasia, the therapist first teaches single-syllable words, tapping on the patient's hand as he or she speaks the word being taught. As the therapy progresses to multi-syllable words, the therapist uses just two pitches. Unstressed syllables are sung on the lower pitch, and stressed syllables are sung on the higher pitch. Gradually, the patient progresses from singing "food" to "water" to "go to the bathroom now." It may take weeks to teach just 20 to 100 words, but these will be the most important words and phrases for basic communication. In many cases, the patient will reach a point that singing is no longer necessary. The words will be spoken. In some cases, learning to sing is the first step to complete recovery of speech.

Aphasia awareness. In the United States, the National Aphasia Association names each June as Aphasia Awareness Month. The National Aphasia Association urges people to respect people with aphasia as adults—they may not have full fluency in speech, but their other mental processes are likely to be entirely intact. People who have aphasia should be addressed in simple, adult language, when the speaker is sure of having their attention, with a minimum of noise and distractions.

Give people with aphasia time to respond—and remember to include them in as many activities as possible. Including people with aphasia in social activities is enriching to them, and to the people they love.