Huntington's disease is a progressive disorder that causes the brain to lose nerve cells, affecting the part of the brain that regulates mood, movement and cognitive skills. About 30,000 people in the United States have Huntington's disease. To date, there is no known cure, so the management of symptoms is the primary focus of treatment.


Most people with Huntington's begin to show symptoms between the ages of 30 and 50, although symptoms can manifest as early as two years old, and well into old age. Huntington's disease affecting those under the age of 20 is called Juvenile Huntington's.

Early symptoms vary from person to person, and include:

  • Behavioral changes, ranging from irritability to hallucinations or psychosis
  • Abnormal muscle movements that can affect any part of the body, but especially the face, head, arms and legs
  • Problems with speech, memory and judgment

The National Institutes of Health states that depression caused by physical changes to the brain is very common among Huntington's patients. They may also experience anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior and mood changes that make them unusually angry or irritable.

Although the progression of Huntington's is different for each person, patients generally live for between 10 to 30 years following diagnosis. Death is caused by complications of Huntington's; such as heart failure, aspiration pneumonia or injuries associated with a fall. Due to the high occurrence of depression, patients with Huntington's may also be at higher risk of suicide.


Huntington's is caused by a genetic “stutter" on one of the 23 chromosomes containing the human genetic code. A person whose mother or father had Huntington's disease has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the genetic defect that causes the disorder.

People who do not inherit the gene from their parents will typically not develop the disease, or pass it on to their children. In very rare cases, Huntington's disease will develop in a person who has not inherited the genetic defect from a parent.

The symptoms of Huntington's disease are also associated with many other conditions, so it's important to get an accurate diagnosis. A physician will usually refer patients who show signs of Huntington's to a neurologist. The neurologist will then look at the patient's symptoms and family history, as well as the result of brain scans and genetic tests. A psychiatric evaluation may also be performed.


Medication, psychotherapy and occupational therapy are a few of the treatments used to help treat the conditions associated with Huntington's disease. In addition, caregivers can do a great deal to help patients manage their symptoms.

According to the Alzheimer's Disease Association, atypical antipsychotic drugs or SSRI antidepressants can be used to treat anger and threatening behavior. Obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression and anxiety can also be treated with medication. Psychotherapy can help Huntington's patients to develop coping skills, communicate more effectively with family members and caregivers and control behavioral issues.

Caregivers can improve the wellbeing of Huntington's patients by:

  • Creating and maintaining a regular routine
  • Helping the patient break down tasks into manageable steps
  • Learning what causes a patient to become anxious, and avoiding those stressors
  • Providing opportunities for social interaction

Community-based social services or support groups like the Huntington's Disease Society of America can also provide information and support.