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Posted on May 19 2022 by Fiona Bailey

May is a month which has become synonymous with raising awareness of a particular health condition which many people may not even be aware of.

Dr Inga Stewart, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at St Andrew's Healthcare, is an expert in Huntington's disease and wants to help raise awareness of this health condition which impacts at least 6,700 individuals in the UK.

Huntington's disease affects the body’s nervous system stopping parts of the brain working properly over time. This gradually affects a person's functional abilities, so living with it means the person and those around them have to adapt to change.

Dr Stewart said: "Sadly, not many people understand the symptoms and so those who have the condition can be mistaken for being drunk due to the way the changes can affect the way they walk and talk.

"Huntington's disease is a genetic condition. It is an inherited illness caused by a faulty gene in someone’s DNA, which means you cannot catch Huntington’s disease. Early symptoms can include changes in concentration, planning and thinking, clumsiness and mood or personality changes.

"As the condition progresses individuals may experience involuntary movements, movements the person doesn’t want to make, which is known as chorea, or stiffness, changes in eye movements and difficulty with speech or swallowing."

St Andrew's Healthcare provide tailored treatment for people with with the condition, focusing on three core components which are neuropsychiatry, cognitive deficits and physical/motor deficits.

Staff help to maximise functional ability and quality of life for people with Huntington's disease through holistic management of their needs.

Dr Stewart added: "There is also the mental health aspect of living with this condition which can hugely impact the person. Depression is one of the most common mood disorders associated with Huntington's disease. This is not just linked to the experience of living with the diagnosis of the disease. Depression also appears to develop because of changes in the brain and therefore the way it functions becomes impaired.

"Usually, the movement disorder is the most obvious symptom and may be the first change that someone notices. Changes to the way a person thinks can have the biggest impact on their day-to-day life, and changes in behaviour can be the symptom that gives the person and those caring for them the most concern.

"The condition can sound bleak, but it is important to remember that you can live well with Huntington’s disease and although there isn’t a cure at the moment we can treat many of the symptoms and there is help and support out there to improve the person’s quality of life."

Huntington's disease might sound like a condition that only affects the older generation, but that is simply not the case. In fact, symptoms can develop at any time, but they usually first appear when people are between the ages of 30 and 40.

Although it is rarer, in some cases people can start showing signs of the condition before the age of 20.

Dr Stewart said her "one message" to people would be "should you see someone behaving a little differently when out and about, do not automatically assume they are intoxicated or attention seeking".

She added: "There could well be a very good reason behind their behaviour and hopefully, if you are still reading, you will have a much better understanding of Huntington’s disease and how it can manifest itself in people living with the condition."

For anybody who would like more information about Huntingdon’s disease watch Dr Stewart's video here where she explains more about the condition or click here to find out more about St Andrew's Healthcare services.