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Worried About Huntington's?

My mother had Huntington's disease. She was diagnosed when I was four or five and died when I was nine. Is it possible that my sister and I could get it? My sister is 23 and I'm 19. Is there a way to prevent it?

Answer (Published 2/25/2008)

Huntington's disease is a brain disorder caused by a genetic mutation passed from parent to child. If one of your parents had the disease, you have a 50 percent chance of developing it. If you haven't inherited the mutation, you won't get Huntington's, nor can you pass it along to your own children.

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You can be tested to determine whether or not you've got the genetic mutation. All that's required is a blood sample, but the Huntington's Disease Society of America (HDSA) recommends having the test done at a Huntington's Disease testing center, where trained professionals are available to discuss the implications of the results and whatever follow-up might be needed. Although the test can reveal that you have the mutation, it won't predict when symptoms will develop or how severe they will be. Typically, symptoms appear gradually between the ages of 30 and 50. People can live for 15 to 20 years with Huntington's after the onset of symptoms but tend to become increasingly disabled over time.

Symptoms vary from person to person - in general, the earlier they develop, the faster the progression of the disease. Early symptoms are often mood swings – irritability, apathy, depression, anger - as well as changes in memory, judgment, and other cognitive functions. Or, the disease can begin with uncontrolled movements of the fingers, feet, face or trunk that get worse with stress.

Although there's no cure, drug treatments are available to help control both the movement and emotional problems. Unfortunately, these medications don't slow or reverse the course of the disease. It's important for Huntington's patients to be under the care of a neurologist who has expertise with the disease. You can learn more about Huntington's and locate a genetic testing center and medical resources via HDSA at

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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