Huntington’s disease is an inherited degenerative neurological condition that affects a patient’s movements, thinking and emotions. Huntington’s disease is rare, affecting 1 in 10,000 people in the United States. Most commonly, symptoms begin between the ages of 35 and 50. When the disease appears before the age of 20, it’s called Juvenile Huntington’s disease.
Generally, Huntington’s disease affects you in stages. You may experience only certain symptoms or you might experience symptoms at different stages.
- changes in your ability to move in a coordinated fashion
- changes in your balance, and episodes of feeling clumsier than usual
- changes in mood and personality
- cognitive deficits, difficulty thinking clearly
- difficulty in the way you move may be exaggerated
- diminished speech and eating difficulties
- trouble reasoning
- behavioral changes may worsen
- feelings of anger and depression may occur
- total dependence on those around you
- complications of the disease may include weight loss, malnutrition, speech and swallowing difficulties, inability to communicate
Juvenile Huntington’s is recognized by similar yet distinct symptoms. Children and teenagers affected with the disease show a loss of things they already knew: math skills just learned may disappear or they may not remember how to play or work with others well. Their work in school declines rapidly, and they start to have behavior problems. Changes in fine motor skills, accompanied by contracted and rigid muscles and tremors, are also noted.
Huntington’s disease is hereditary. Only one gene needs to be passed down for the disease to be present, so if one of your parents has Huntington’s disease, you have a 50 percent chance of being affected.
Huntington’s disease is about managing symptoms and living as well as you can. Some studies have shown that exercise can be beneficial for patients with Huntington’s disease. Maintaining optimal nutrition is also very important for patients with Huntington’s disease. It is important to eat healthy, nutritious and calorie dense food to prevent weight loss. Occupational, speech and physical therapists can work with you throughout the disease process to help manage your symptoms.
If Huntington’s disease is suspected because of your symptoms or because of a family history of the disease, a blood or saliva test may be ordered to look for the Huntington’s gene.
Other tests may include:
- Checking motor function, balance, coordination, and reflexes
- Cognitive tests
- A psychological evaluation
- An MRI, CT scan or other brain imaging may be ordered to see if there are any structural changes in your brain, and to assess for other causes of your symptoms.
While there is no cure, there are several medications that can treat the symptoms of Huntington’s disease. These medications can be helpful to treat involuntary movements, called chorea, as well as mood and behavioral changes associated with the disease. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy are often helpful in managing symptoms of Huntington’s.