Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Huntington Disease

(Huntington's Disease; Huntington Chorea; Chronic Progressive Chorea; Hereditary Chorea)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jul 2020| Content last modified Jul 2020
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What is Huntington disease?

Huntington disease is a genetic disorder that causes a slow breakdown of specific nerve cells in the brain.

  • Symptoms usually start between ages 35 and 40

  • The disease breaks down the part of your brain that helps you make smooth and coordinated movements

  • Movements become slow, jerky, and clumsy, and your speech gets slurred

  • Mental functions are affected so you become depressed and irritable, and your memory and thinking get worse

  • Once symptoms start, they keep getting worse and eventually cause death in 13 to 15 years

  • A blood test can tell doctors whether you have the gene responsible for the disease

What causes Huntington disease?

Huntington disease is caused by a gene inherited from one of your parents. The gene leads to the slow breakdown of the part of your brain that helps you think and make smooth and coordinated movements.

What are the symptoms of Huntington disease?

Symptoms usually start in adulthood.

The most common first symptoms include:

  • Jerky, uncontrolled movements in your legs and arms

  • Frequent blinking

  • Odd, jerky walk

  • Mental and personality changes, such as confusion, poor impulse control, depression, or anger

As the disease gets worse, you:

  • Lose your memory and ability to think clearly (dementia)

  • Have trouble doing basic tasks such as getting dressed, bathing, and using the toilet

Eventually you'll need full-time care. Most people die about 13 to 15 years after symptoms start.

How can doctors tell if I have Huntington disease?

If you have symptoms of Huntington disease, doctors will:

  • Do genetic tests on your blood

  • Make certain you don't have some other brain disease by doing tests such as CT or MRI scan

If the tests show Huntington disease or if someone in your family had Huntington disease, doctors will suggest:

  • Genetic counseling

If you have Huntington disease, genetic counseling will help you understand the risks of passing the disease on to your children.

If you haven't been diagnosed with Huntington disease but you have a family history of it, genetic counseling can help you decide whether you want to get tested. Some people don't want to know whether they have a fatal disease. Others want to know whether any children they have would be at risk.

How do doctors treat Huntington disease?

There's no cure, but doctors can treat many of your symptoms and help you plan for your future. They may prescribe:

  • Medicine to help ease your symptoms

  • Antidepressants, if you're depressed

You should talk to your doctor about an advance directive. In an advance directive, you make your medical care choices clear in writing to your doctor and family while you're still able to.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
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