Alexia represents an acquired cognitive disorder when a patient loses the ability to recognize written words and sentences. The condition stems from disruptions in brain functions that control the processing of text and language. It commonly develops in Alzheimer’s patients, as well as from brain injury, stroke, and certain forms of dementia. There is no known cure for this progressive disorder, but using short words and sentences might delay total incomprehension.
Activation of the occipital and temporal regions of the brain allows processing of letters that form words and the relation of words in a sentence. In a person suffering from alexia, words cannot be processed as a unit and lose their meaning. Pure alexia, also called word blindness, means words and sentences have no meaning whatsoever and become completely unrecognizable.
Alexia might occur with or without two other common cognitive disorders that develop in Alzheimer’s patients. Aphasia refers to a loss of verbal communication that commonly affects people with alexia. Agraphia is the inability to write words or sentences, representing another cognitive disorder typically occurring with alexia.
Patients with aphasia usually cannot express the words they want to use in verbal communication. Sometimes they provide alternative words to help explain what they are trying to say. Alzheimer’s patients also might make up a word, called a neologism, that actually has no meaning. As aphasia progresses, the patient’s language might become nonsensical and incomprehensible. He or she might stop talking completely and become unable to verbalize thoughts.
Signs of alexia with aphasia include mispronouncing words or using words that don’t belong in a sentence. The condition might prevent a person from understanding a story or participating in a normal conversation. He or she might not understand a pun or wry humor, and become confused by sentences that contain more than one idea or concept.
Alexia and agraphia usually occur in tandem as brain function declines. A patient might lose the ability to spell simple words or use words that are meaningless in a written sentence. A simple task, such as writing a check, might require a long period of time as the patient tries to process letters into words. As agraphia progresses, some people lose the ability to sign their own names.
Medical professionals who work with Alzheimer's patients typically prefer one-on-one conversation in a quiet place to help the patient comprehend written or verbal language. Speaking slowly and using simple words might help the patient recognize what is being said. Other helpful tactics include pausing between sentences and sticking to one topic at a time while making eye contact with the patient.