What is Huntington disease?

Huntington disease (HD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease. In other words, it causes parts of the brain to die. As the condition progresses, people with HD may experience involuntary movements and struggle to remember things, make decisions and control their emotions.

HD is genetic, and each child of a parent with HD has a 50 per cent chance of having the disease.

How common is HD?

1 in 7,000 Canadians has HD, but 1 in 1,000 will be affected by it—they may have the disease, have a loved one living with it or care for a person with HD.

What are the symptoms?

HD manifests differently in every person, and this means the kinds of symptoms and the severity of the symptoms vary from person to person. A person’s symptoms may also change as the condition progresses.

Cognitive symptoms    

  • Trouble with memory, planning, judgment, focus and decision-making
  • Difficulty recalling and expressing words

Physical symptoms

  • Involuntary movements (called chorea) that can look like twitching or jerking of the head, neck and limbs
  • Trouble balancing and walking
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing and swallowing
  • Contracted and rigid muscles
  • Weight loss (some people with HD need to consume around 5,000 calories a day if their chorea is prominent)

Emotional symptoms

  • Depression, anxiety, irritability and apathy; these can be reactions to the illness or caused by changes in the brain 

When do people with HD start showing symptoms?

HD symptoms typically appear between age 35 and 50, but it can also manifest in late adulthood or even in children as young as five. If the onset of HD happens before age 20, it is considered juvenile HD.

What are the treatment options?

No treatments are currently known to stop or slow the progression of HD, but some medications are available to manage a person’s symptoms.

For more information on HD, please visit the Huntington Society of Canada.

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