What is Huntington’s disease?
Huntington’s disease (often referred to as HD) is an inherited, progressive, neuropsychiatric disease – a brain disorder. The disease affects brain cells, which lead to changes in a person’s movement, thinking, and mood.
HD affects both men and women throughout the world. In the United States, up to 43,000 individuals are affected with HD and 123,000 individuals are at 50% risk.
Onset generally occurs between 30 and 50 years of age, but it varies among individuals and within families, and both earlier and later onset can occur.
Children of a parent with HD have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the HD gene expansion that ultimately results in the disease. A person who inherits the HD gene expansion will develop symptoms of HD at some time during his or her life.
To learn more about genetics and HD, please see our Genetics 101 page.
What are the symptoms of Huntington’s disease?
Symptoms can be described in three categories: movement, cognitive (thinking), and neuropsychiatric.
Movement symptoms may include involuntary movements (chorea) in the arms, legs, face or trunk, as well as fidgety movements, tics and muscle rigidity and/or tightness. There can also be problems with balance, coordination, swallowing, speech and walking.
Cognitive changes generally occur slowly over time. As symptoms progress, people often have difficulty performing work-related tasks. They have altered organizational skills and slowed processing of information. They begin to have difficulty with multi-tasking and with initiating thoughts and activities. Some individuals are not aware of symptoms in themselves even though they are noticeable to people around them.
Neuropsychiatric problems include depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, irritability, anger outbursts, delirium, and mania. Some people experience difficulties with psychiatric symptoms and others do not.
Progression of the Disease
Symptoms vary among people and even within families. Symptoms in a parent generally do not predict symptoms in their adult children. For instance, mood changes and movement symptoms may be pronounced in some people and fairly mild in others. The first noticeable symptoms are also variable between individuals. Regardless of the symptom profile, changes in the brain continue to progress over 10-20 years.
While there is no cure to-date, many treatments exist to help manage the symptoms. In addition, scientists are working to develop therapeutic interventions to slow or even stop disease progression.
The Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) offers many helpful resources for learning more about HD.