A neurodegenerative disease is a condition associated with the breakdown of neurons, leading to progressive declines in neurological function. Such diseases can be acquired, congenital, or inherited, and they may be diagnosed at any age, although commonly people are older when neurodegenerative diseases first onset. Treatment options are typically limited to trying to arrest further damage and helping patients prepare for a point in their future where their cognitive function will be severely impaired.
Some examples of neurodegenerative disease include Huntington's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal muscular atrophy, and Parkinson's disease. Symptoms at onset often involve numbness and tingling, clumsiness, and slowed cognitive function. Patients may not be able to remember things as clearly and they can experience problems with functional memory, where they forget how to do things. Neurodegenerative disease is also associated with progressive paralysis, aphasia, and a wide variety of other symptoms.
The mechanisms behind the disease are variable. In some patients, a genetic problem leads to problems with coding for proteins involved in the function of neurons. Individual cells may die, the signals between cells may be interrupted, or cells may not produce the right products, leading to a shortage of a needed neurotransmitter. Patients can also experience breakdowns in communication between neurons, where individual cells work but their signals cannot get through to other cells.
In a family with a history of neurodegenerative disease, a doctor may recommend regularly screening people for the early signs of disease. Sometimes medications are available to help patients function better and to address problems like tremors associated with some diseases. Other patients may not be diagnosed until the disease is further in its progression and the treatment options can be more limited. As neurodegenerative disease progresses, patients usually require more assistance with daily tasks and may eventually need a full time aide, along with assistive devices like wheelchairs.
People who notice things like reduced hand coordination, stumbling, and inability to perform familiar cognitive tasks easily may want to seek an evaluation for neurodegenerative disease. A neurologist can conduct an examination and order imaging studies of the brain to look for abnormalities. If the patient does not have a disease, it's possible a brain tumor or other kind of lesion like stroke damage may be involved. Finding out why the patient is having trouble functioning will help a doctor determine the best available treatment options and early intervention may make a significant difference.