Overview - Huntington's disease

Huntington's disease is a condition that stops parts of the brain working properly over time. It's passed on (inherited) from a person's parents.

It gets gradually worse over time and is usually fatal after a period of up to 20 years.

Symptoms

The symptoms usually start at 30 to 50 years of age, but can begin much earlier or later.

Symptoms of Huntington's disease can include:

  • difficulty concentrating and memory lapses
  • depression
  • stumbling and clumsiness
  • involuntary jerking or fidgety movements of the limbs and body
  • mood swings and personality changes
  • problems swallowing, speaking and breathing
  • difficulty moving

Full-time nursing care is needed in the later stages of the condition. It's usually fatal about 15 to 20 years after symptoms start.

Read more about the symptoms of Huntington's disease.

How it's inherited

Huntington's disease is caused by a faulty gene that results in parts of the brain becoming gradually damaged over time.

You're usually only at risk of developing it if one of your parents has or had it. Both men and women can get it.

If a parent has the Huntington's disease gene, there's a:

  • 1 in 2 (50%) chance of each of their children developing the condition – affected children are also able to pass the gene to any children they have
  • 1 in 2 (50%) chance of each of their children never developing the condition – unaffected children can't pass the condition on to any children they have

Very occasionally, it's possible to develop Huntington's disease without having a history of it in your family. But this is usually just because one of your parents was never diagnosed with it.

When to get medical advice

Speak to your GP for advice if:

  • you're worried you might have symptoms of Huntington's disease – especially if someone in your family has or had it
  • you have a history of the condition in your family and you want to find out if you will get it, too
  • you have a history of the condition in your family and you're planning a pregnancy

Your GP may refer you to a specialist for tests to check for Huntington's disease.

Treatment and support

There's currently no cure for Huntington's disease or any way to stop it getting worse.

But treatment and support can help reduce some of the problems it causes, such as:

  • medicines for depression, mood swings and involuntary movements
  • occupational therapy to help make everyday tasks easier
  • speech and language therapy for feeding and communication problems
  • physiotherapy to help with movement and balance

Read more about treatment and support for Huntington's disease.

Further information and advice

Living with Huntington's disease can be very distressing and frustrating for the person with the condition, as well as their loved ones and carers.

You may find The Huntington's Disease Association a useful source of information and support.

They offer:

Media last reviewed: 14/04/2018

Media review due: 14/04/2021

Page last reviewed: 13/02/2018
Next review due: 13/02/2021