by Martha Nance, MD, Director, Huntington's Disease Center of Excellence at Hennepin County Medical Center -------- Huntington’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. More than 30,000 individuals in the United States have been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. Adult-onset Huntington’s disease symptoms usually begin when a person is in his or her 30s and 40s, but can begin earlier or much later. Huntington’s disease symptoms can include both behavior changes and movement disorders, with behavior changes often occurring first.
Early Huntington’s disease behavior symptoms can include irritability, mood swings, impulsivity, paranoia and apathy. Mild cognitive changes in Huntington’s disease symptoms progress to dementia over time. Patients may find it difficult to plan and prioritize tasks, start a conversation or focus on a project for any length of time. Decision making can be difficult, and learning new skills becomes difficult or impossible.
Movement problems include unsteady gait, poor coordination, and jerky or dance-like movements of the arms, legs, face or other body parts (chorea). As the disease progresses, Huntington’s disease symptoms may include rigidity and dystonia (a stiff posture of a joint), and all people with Huntington’s disease eventually develop difficulty chewing, swallowing and talking. Frequent falls occur later in the course, and eventually people with Huntington’s disease are unable to walk or feed themselves.
A wide range of psychiatric symptoms can occur in patients with Huntington’s disease, including depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, substance abuse, psychosis, obsessive-compulsive symptoms and mania. The suicide rate is higher in families of Huntington’s disease patients than in the general population. Sleep patterns also may be affected with Huntington’s disease patients experiencing symptoms of either insomnia or excessive sleepiness.
In about five to ten percent cases, Huntington’s disease symptoms begin in childhood. This is called juvenile Huntington’s disease, and the progression of symptoms differs slightly from adult Huntington’s disease. Symptoms can include a decline in school performance or general physical skills. Rigid muscles may affect a young child’s walking gait and ability to talk and swallow. Seizures and tremors are much more common symptoms in children with Huntington’s disease than in adults.
Huntington’s Hope raises post-secondary education scholarship money for the children of parents with Huntington’s disease. The organization hopes to raise $1 million in 2013 with 100 percent of Huntington’s disease donations going directly into an endowment fund to create these scholarships.
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Good Samaritan Society – Specialty Care Community in Robbinsdale, Minn., owned and operated by the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, is one of only eight long-term skilled care centers in the United States with a dedicated program for individuals with Huntington’s disease.