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Understanding Huntington's disease

This genetic disease affects brain function, sometimes dramatically. Treatment can help control some of the symptoms.

Any illness that affects your brain can have a major impact on your life. Such is the case with Huntington's disease.

Huntington's is an inherited disorder that affects thinking, judgment, memory, movement and emotional control.

The symptoms are caused by damage to brain cells. They tend to appear gradually, usually between ages 30 and 50, reports the Huntington's Disease Society of America.

In most cases, people with Huntington's can maintain their independence for several years after the first symptoms occur. As the disease progresses, however, the symptoms can become quite severe.

A family disease

Huntington's is passed from one generation to the next through a mutated gene. Each child of an affected parent has a 50% chance of inheriting the gene. Genetic testing enables doctors to determine whether a person carries this gene. If the gene is present, the person will eventually develop Huntington's. However, the test cannot confirm when the disease will begin or how severe it may be.

Decisions about whether to be tested are very personal. The results can have far-reaching effects on decisions about career, marriage and family.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Symptoms of Huntington's vary widely from person to person. The following are some common features of the disease:

  • Depression, irritability, anxiety and apathy.
  • Behavioral changes, such as aggressive outbursts, impulsiveness, mood swings or social withdrawal.
  • Reduced ability to organize routine matters or cope effectively with new situations.
  • Short-term memory loss.
  • Nervous activity, such as fidgeting or twitching.
  • Involuntary movement of the head, neck, trunk and limbs. This can lead to problems with walking and balance.
  • Impaired speech and swallowing.

A doctor may diagnose Huntington's after looking at family history and doing a complete exam, which includes neurological and psychological tests. Genetic testing may also be used to rule out or confirm the disease.

Treating Huntington's

Treatment for Huntington's takes many forms. Although the treatments don't alter the course of the disease, they can help people cope with symptoms. Several research breakthroughs are adding to the hopes for better treatments and an eventual cure.

Medications can sometimes ease symptoms such as depression, anxiety and involuntary movements. But other people will fare better when medications are kept to a minimum.

Physical, occupational and speech therapists are often involved early in treatment. They can help a person with Huntington's adjust to living with the disease. Nutritionists can also suggest diets to help maintain weight. Maintaining, or even gaining, weight can sometimes help reduce symptoms.

Finally, support groups often prove helpful to people with Huntington's. Knowledge and advice shared by others can be valuable.

reviewed 11/6/2019

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