Huntington's disease is everywhere. Roughly 1 in 7000 Canadians has it.
Yet few people are aware of Huntington's. They confuse it with Parkinson's disease or dementia. It is a distinct disorder with significant ramifications for the people who have it.
What are the signs of Huntington's disease, including in younger people? What is the life expectancy with Huntington's? What are the treatment and diagnosis of Huntington's like?
Huntington's Disease Symptoms
Huntington's disease occurs when nerve cells in the brain break down. This means that the disease can present itself with a wide range of symptoms.
Many people with Huntington's experience problems with their movement. Their limbs may jerk or writhe. They may feel like their limbs are very rigid or hard to stretch.
Problems may occur with their eyes. They may be unable to move their eyes quickly. Their eyes may go up-to-down when they should go side-to-side.
Someone with Huntington's may have trouble speaking or swallowing. They may slouch over or have poor balance.
Many people with Huntington's also experience cognitive symptoms. They may have trouble organizing different tasks. They may become stuck on one behaviour or thought.
Some people may have outbursts. This can include performing impulsive or dangerous activities. They may lose awareness of their limitations and abilities.
What Are the First Symptoms of Huntington's Disease?
Every person who has Huntington's has different symptoms. This means that the first signs of Huntington's differs from person to person.
In general, most people with Huntington's experience an onset in their 30s. But roughly 10% of people with the disease experience late-onset Huntington's.
It is also possible for children to show signs of the disease. This will affect how the first symptoms appear in an individual.
The first symptoms of Huntington's may be cognitive. A person may struggle to learn new information or retain old memories. They may be unable to process their thoughts.
Words can be a particular challenge. Someone may be unable to find the right words to express themselves. They may forget the meaning or spelling of a particular word.
Someone may be unable to make a decision. They may not be able to tell the difference between two things. They may be unable to maintain a train of thought.
These symptoms can resemble the signs of other disorders. In children, they can overlap with an autism spectrum disorder or a learning disability. In adults, they can overlap with dementia or brain damage.
Huntington's can present alongside a psychiatric disorder as well. Many people experience depression. They may feel hopeless, and they may withdraw from activities they used to enjoy.
But the depression can come before or after physical symptoms. A person may feel a sense of hopelessness because they cannot perform their previous activities.
Apathy can appear as a part of depression. But some people with Huntington's may feel apathy by itself.
They may not care about others' thoughts, feelings, and activities. They may lose the passion they had for their job and personal commitments.
Someone may feel irritability. Their irritation may arise from no apparent cause. They may express their anger with a violent outburst or by raising their voice.
Others may experience odd obsessions. They may ruminate over old thoughts, or they may fixate on new activities and chores. These obsessions can include sex and illicit substances.
What Is the Life Expectancy for Huntington's Disease?
The median survival rate for Huntington's is 15 to 18 years after symptoms begin to appear. There is no cure for Huntington's disease.
Huntington's may not be the cause of death for someone. A person may experience a seizure that causes them to fall. They may develop pneumonia, or they may aspirate food as they try to swallow it.
Children with the disease tend to have shorter life expectancies. More severe symptoms appear earlier on. But this is not always the case.
Is Huntington's Disease Preventable?
Huntington's is a genetic disorder. Mutations in the HTT gene can cause the disease to develop. The mutations make segments of DNA repeat themselves, causing proteins to become long.
The body then breaks these long proteins down into small fragments. But these fragments bind together and accumulate inside brain cells. This prevents the cells from working, sparking the disease.
These mutations can get passed down to future generations. One copy of the mutation can be enough for a child to develop the disorder.
But not all people with the mutations will develop the disorder. The DNA segments must repeat several dozen times before someone has Huntington's. Yet an unaffected person can pass their genes down, and their child may become affected.
There is no way to prevent someone from developing Huntington's once their DNA begins to mutate. A person cannot receive therapy that prevents their DNA from mutating.
But someone with a family history of Huntington's should track their history. As soon as they develop symptoms, they can get help and prevent immediate complications.
A doctor cannot diagnose Huntington's off of symptoms alone because the symptoms of several disorders overlap with each other. Family history is also not enough, though it can provide a clue as to what a person has.
A doctor can conduct a neurological examination. They will perform simple tests of a person's physical and psychiatric symptoms. This can include questionnaires and tests of the patellar reflex.
If a person complains about their memory, their doctor can perform some memory tests. This can involve repeating a list of words or numbers. An individual may need to explain how two items are alike in order to test their cognition.
A doctor may then examine the individual's psychiatric health. This helps them assess if the person is developing depression or irritability. This also removes potential causes like substance abuse.
Brain images can reveal how proteins are affecting brain cells. A doctor may recommend brain imaging only if a person may have an advanced case of Huntington's.
No treatment can prolong a person's life in significant amounts. But there are multiple treatments so someone can preserve their quality of life for years to come.
A person may take several medications at once. They can take drugs like Xenazine to prevent tremors and seizures. These drugs can cause drowsiness, so someone should take them with their doctor's consent.
Antipsychotic drugs can also help reduce uncontrolled movements. These medications tend to induce restlessness and drowsiness, so doctors do not often prescribe them for physical symptoms.
Someone with violent outbursts or irritability can take antipsychotics. Someone who experiences depression or extreme apathy may receive antidepressants. If a person shows signs of both extreme aggression and depression, they can take mood-stabilizing pills.
People who have difficulty speaking or swallowing can attend speech therapy. Breathing exercises tend to be very helpful.
A therapist may ask an individual to exaggerate their mouth movements. This can help them build muscles in their face, making it easier to talk and swallow. This also makes their speech more discernable.
Someone with speech problems can take breathing exercises. They can learn how to take a full breath before speaking. This lets them pronounce longer words and sentences.
Someone with an advanced case of Huntington's can receive help with an assistive device. They can learn how to use a smartphone or computer to communicate with others.
Physical and Occupational Therapy
Physical therapy promotes strength, posture, and balance. A person can learn how to use supports in order to improve their posture. They can practice stretches so they can build muscles in their legs and hips.
If a person needs a walker, a therapist can teach them how to use it. Physical therapy is individualized so the therapist can adjust exercises to an individual's condition. As the disease progresses, the person can do new things to stay strong.
Occupational therapy is similar to physical therapy. But it focuses on using assistive devices so a person improves their ability to function. They can learn how to use handrails or special eating utensils.
Someone with Huntington's will increase their dependency on caregivers through time. They and their caregivers should learn how they can maintain their body weight. They can develop a healthy eating plan with foods that prevent heart disease.
The person can use calendars to keep their regular routine. They can schedule their tasks at the start of the day so they can get everything done.
Emotional support animals can help increase a person's mood and quality of life. Someone should help them maintain their animals so they do not become exhausted.
Get Help for Huntington's Disease
Huntington's disease affects young and old alike. Physical symptoms like tremors and a slumped posture may be most prominent. But someone can experience cognitive and behavioural symptoms first.
A person may live less than 20 years with the disease. It is not preventable, though only people with genetic mutations can suffer from it.
A doctor uses symptoms, a family history, and simple tests for a diagnosis. A person can then take medications and therapy to mitigate their symptoms.
Anyone with Huntington's can receive help. Insurdinary lets you receive fast quotes from Canadian insurers. Get your quotes today.