While speech therapists are widely recognized for their role in helping children with language, they also regularly work with adults who have trouble with speech, language, and cognitive function (such as memory, perception, and problem solving).
Many communication challenges common among adults either have persisted throughout their lives and were never properly treated. Other issues were acquired later in life through some type of injury or medical condition.
What causes speech problems in adults?
Here are some common causes of speech and language impediments in adults:
Neurological disorder: Disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), or multiple sclerosis affect parts of our nervous system which control essential functions in the body, such as our ability to speak.
Injury to the vocal cords: When we talk, air travels through the vocal folds in our larynx, which vibrate to make sound. Anything that damages our vocal cords can cause voice problems. This might include nodules, paralysis/paresis, or cancer.
Dementia: Dementia, which includes medical conditions like Alzheimer's disease, can affect a person’s cognitive abilities. This can cause loss of memory and make thinking skills more challenging, such as solving problems or planning ahead. Speech-language therapy can help individuals maintain their quality of life.
Common speech impairments in adults
While adults can experience a wide range of speech and language disorders, below are common impairments that affect older individuals:
Apraxia of speech: While apraxia can happen at any age, it occurs in adults usually as a result of stroke. Less common causes include head or brain injuries, dementia, and neurological disorders. When we speak, our brain sends signals to the muscles in our mouth to coordinate their movements (the lips, jaw, and tongue). For individuals with apraxia, these signals are disrupted and the person has trouble controlling these movements. This makes it hard to coordinate sounds into intelligible words, which can affect a person’s ability to form coherent sentences and communicate. People with severe apraxia may not be able to make any sounds or words at all.
Aphasia: Aphasia can occur when portions of the brain responsible for language are damaged. Aphasia can come on suddenly, such as after a stroke or traumatic brain injury, or it can develop more gradually as a result of a brain tumor or neurological disorder. With aphasia, individuals can have difficulty grasping and expressing both verbal and written language. Aphasia can affect a person’s speaking abilities, how well they understand other people, and their ability to read and write.
Dysarthria: Unlike apraxia, which makes it difficult to coordinate the movements of muscles used to speak, dysarthria happens when these muscles are weakened. This can happen as a result of nervous system disorders, as well as conditions that cause facial paralysis. Dysarthria often causes slowed or slurred speech in an individual that makes them difficult to understand. The rhythm or speed in which they speak may also be affected.
Voice disturbances: There are a number of reasons someone’s vocal cords may be impacted that can cause disruptions to how they speak. This can include throat cancer, or polyps, nodules, and other growths on the vocal cords. Voice disturbances can cause someone to sound hoarse or breathy, or having difficulty controlling the volume and tone of their voice.