Neurodegenerative disorders are chronic conditions that damage and destroy parts of your nervous system over time, especially your brain. These conditions are permanent and incurable, but many are now treatable thanks to medical advances. Currently, the main goal is to treat the symptoms and slow the progress of these conditions when possible.
Neurodegenerative diseases are conditions that gradually damage and destroy parts of your nervous system, especially areas of your brain. These conditions usually develop slowly, and the effects and symptoms tend to appear later in life.
This term doesn’t just refer to a single type of condition. Instead, it’s an umbrella term that applies to several types of conditions.
Some of the main types of degenerative brain diseases include (but aren’t limited to):
It’s important to remember that there are many areas of overlap between the various degenerative brain diseases. Many of them share symptoms and have causes that work similarly.
Degenerative brain diseases are uncommon, but happen often enough to be common knowledge. Researchers estimate they affect more than 50 million people worldwide.
Most of these conditions are strongly connected to age and are much more likely to happen in people over 65 (but some conditions like Huntington’s disease and ALS often appear earlier). The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that the number of people over 65 will at least double in the next 30 years. That means the number of people with neurodegenerative conditions will also climb at a similar rate.
The symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases vary widely. Some may have obvious connections to a degenerative brain disease. Other symptoms might seem completely unconnected without specific medical testing.
In general, the different types of conditions cause the following symptoms:
The symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases can vary widely, even among people with the same condition. There are a few reasons for this:
Some neurodegenerative diseases have a single cause that healthcare providers can identify. But in many cases, there isn’t a single cause. Instead, research shows multiple factors probably contribute to neurodegenerative diseases. And there are times when providers might not be able to find a cause — which can be frustrating for someone with one of these conditions or their loved ones.
So far, experts have identified dozens of possible causes or risk factors. These tend to fall into a few specific categories, including:
Complications are common with neurodegenerative diseases because these diseases damage parts of your brain and nervous system. As the damage worsens, you lose the abilities that the damaged areas once controlled. Some examples of this include:
Diagnosing a neurodegenerative disease varies depending on the condition you have. Healthcare providers can start with a simple neurological exam and by asking you or your loved ones questions about your symptoms and medical history.
Other conditions are diagnosable with specific tests. Some of these include:
Other tests are also possible depending on the condition you have or the symptoms you show. These can vary widely because they depend on what area of your brain they affect. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what tests they recommend in your situation and why.
Unfortunately, all neurodegenerative diseases are incurable. These diseases destroy brain cells, which is impossible to reverse.
Some neurodegenerative diseases are treatable, depending on why they happen. Some of these conditions are treatable directly, so you may be able to manage, limit or slow their effects. Other conditions aren’t treatable directly, but it might be possible to treat the symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Because the treatments can vary so widely, your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what treatments are possible and which they recommend. The information they provide will be the most relevant and accurate because it also considers the details of your situation, your medical history and more. They can also tell you about the side effects and complications you might experience, what to watch for and any other considerations.
Neurodegenerative diseases happen unpredictably. Most of them happen for reasons that aren’t fully understood. Because of both those facts, they aren’t preventable.
While neurodegenerative diseases aren’t preventable, there are things you can do to lower your risk of developing one. Because these diseases are often due to a combination of factors, reducing the number of factors may help lower your risk.
Steps you can take to reduce your risk include:
Because there are so many different neurodegenerative diseases, what you can expect will vary depending on many factors. Some conditions progress at different rates and may take years or even decades to become severe. Others can worsen faster. As a result, your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what you can expect.
The longer you have a neurodegenerative disease, the more likely complications become. Unfortunately, these conditions can lead to a decrease in quality of life, and eventually cause death (or contribute to something else that causes it).
Once they develop, neurodegenerative diseases are permanent, lifelong conditions.
In general, neurodegenerative diseases will continue to worsen and cause some degree of disability. People with these conditions may be unable to move around without using assistive devices. Others may have trouble thinking or remembering, which eventually means they can’t live independently. It’s common for people with these conditions to need some level of medical care 24/7, such as in a long-term care facility (informally known as a nursing home) or a similar setting.
If you have a neurodegenerative disease, taking care of yourself may be possible early on, but eventually, you’ll need help taking care of yourself. Being able to take care of yourself and how long you can do so depend on many factors, especially the condition you have and if you have any other health issues.
If you learn you have a neurodegenerative disease of any kind, it’s important to have conversations with people you trust about what you want if you can’t make choices for yourself. These conversations, while difficult, can ensure they know and follow your wishes. This is a good idea no matter what neurodegenerative condition you have (and a good idea for everyone in general).
The people you should talk about this with include:
The topics you should talk about with them include:
These conversations might feel unpleasant or difficult, but having them sooner rather than later can ensure your loved ones know what you want if you can’t tell them or choose for yourself.
In addition to those conversations, you should also put your wishes and decisions in writing. Consider preparing documents related to legal issues and what happens if you can’t take care of yourself or make decisions for your own care or well-being. You can consult an attorney for help preparing these documents, but many of them you can prepare on your own (you may need a notary or other official to endorse them, depending on the laws in your area).
If you have a loved one with a neurodegenerative disease, what you can do depends on the condition they have, how advanced it is, other health concerns and more. Your loved one and/or their healthcare provider are the best people to tell you what they might need.
It can be hard for many people with these conditions to talk about what they’re facing. Many people with these conditions fear what’s happening or what might happen in the future. That can make it difficult for them to ask for help. Many feel embarrassed about asking for help or the thought that they might need to rely on others.
If you have a loved one with a neurodegenerative disease, here are some things you can do or keep in mind:
You should see a healthcare provider anytime you have brain-related symptoms or issues that affect your routine and activities. Early detection of neurodegenerative diseases can make a big difference in delaying how fast the disease worsens.
If you know you have a neurodegenerative disease, you should also seek care when:
Your healthcare provider can also tell you about other things to watch for that mean you need to see them soon or that you need medical care right away.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Finding out you have a neurodegenerative disease can make you feel shocked, scared or angry. It can also be troubling to face the idea that you might not be able to take care of yourself and live independently because you have one of these conditions. You may also feel that way if you have a loved one with one of these conditions.
While neurodegenerative diseases are permanent and incurable, experts and researchers are continuing to uncover new ways to diagnose and treat these conditions. That means healthcare providers can do even more to treat these conditions, give you a chance to live longer and keep your quality of life as high as possible. That way, you can limit how much these conditions affect your life and focus on what matters most to you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/10/2023.
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