What Is Huntington’s Disease?
Huntington’s disease is an inherited sickness that causes the progressive breakdown, or degeneration of brain cells during a person’s prime years. Huntington’s disease specifically attacks the nerve cells in the brain and has been compared to being afflicted with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s simultaneously.
This disease can affect a person’s mental and physical abilities. Huntington’s is passed through a mutated gene from one or both parents and is not contagious. However, the mutated gene that causes this condition has a 50/50 chance of being passed onto a parent’s children.
While symptoms typically present between the ages of 30 and 50, the progression can begin much earlier or later. At this time, there is no known predictor to the onset or severity of the disease. As symptoms begin to appear, the progression of the disease can vary widely, even within the same family.
Huntington’s disease is broken down into three stages; early, middle and late. While the early stages may be difficult to identify, the middle and late stages may require the use of assistance for everyday tasks.
What Causes Huntington's Disease?
Huntington’s disease cannot be contracted through any infectious vector, meaning that saliva, sweat, blood, or any other type of contact with a person who has Huntington’s disease will result in another individual contracting the disease. Huntington’s disease is a passed from a parent to a child.
Any child that has a parent with Huntington’s disease has a 50 percent chance that they will also carry the mutated gene. While some parents may know that they had the disease before the onset of symptoms, it is usually undetected at the time a parent conceives their children.
Symptoms of Huntington's Disease
The initial onset of Huntington’s disease can be difficult to discern as it may appear gradually and subtly with changes in mood or a decrease in motor functions. However, early warning signs may include:
- Decrease in coordination
- Trouble thinking through complex problems
- Uncontrollable movements
As these symptoms progress into the later stages, the symptoms will become more drastic. Eventually, people living with Huntington’s disease will require increased care in walking, bathing, and eating. Talking may also become difficult or impossible, although there is still recognition of the people and events taking place.
How Is a Huntington's Disease Diagnosed?
The diagnosis process for Huntington’s disease can be a lengthy process to be confident in the assessment. Doctors may suggest a variety of appointments and a number of tests to be conducted to reach a conclusion. Common tests may include:
- Neurological exam
- Neuropsychological testing
- Psychiatric exam
- Brain imaging including an MRI or CT scan
- Genetic counseling and testing
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These tests will not only help physicians diagnose the disease, but will also allow the patient to understand how progressed the disease is. The results of these tests will help develop an individualized treatment plan based on the patient’s needs.
Individuals that have identified a parent that is suffering from Huntington’s disease may also elect to complete a predictive genetic test that can tell someone if they have the mutated gene. The predictive test cannot yield information at when symptoms will begin, or the severity of disease progression.
Treatment for Huntington's Disease
It is essential to see your physician as early as possible when noticing these changes. A doctor can help prescribe a plan to delay or minimize the progression of Huntington’s disease as much as possible. These plans may include:
- Medications to help control involuntary movements
- Exercise plan and physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Speech therapy
- Nutritional support
While none of these treatments can reverse the effects of Huntington’s disease, they have been shown to slow the effects for some patients drastically.
In addition to treating the physical effects of Huntington’s, patients should also consider their mental health. Depression is commonly listed as a symptom of the disease, and proactive planning and meeting with a mental care professional may help.
Huntington’s disease is an illness that is passed on from a parent to their child. Only individuals who carry the mutated gene are at risk for developing or passing on the gene. A child of a parent with the mutated gene has a 50 percent chance of passing the gene onto their child. However, a child that does not have that gene will not pass the disease to their children.
Huntington’s attacks the nerve cells in the brain and affects both physical and mental abilities. There is no known cure for Huntington’s and no known way to reverse the associated symptoms. Early detection and the development of a plan to cover physical and mental issues can help to slow the progression of the disease.
If you or somebody that you know is showing any of the early warning signs of Huntington’s disease, please schedule an appointment with your health care provider and let them know about your concerns.