The 3 Most Common Neurological Diseases That Affect Women

by | Feb 8, 2017 | Health

By Kristen Dold; Photography by Pixabay

In 2014 the Ice-Bucket Challenge was everywhere… yet few people know the real facts about a group of troubling neurological diseases that affect many young women. Here’s all the info you need right now.

All that ice, as well as Hollywood publicist Nanci Ryder’s recently reported diagnosis, shed a spotlight on ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that short-circuits, then destroys, brain and spinal cord cells. The news around the illness—and related neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s—can seem bleak, especially considering that the conditions span age brackets. “They don’t just happen to the elderly,” says Dr. Michael Okun, national medical director at the National Parkinson Foundation. “We see them in teens, people in their twenties, thirties, and forties.”

Unfortunately, there’s no way to flat-out sidestep these ailments, many of which are genetic and baffle even researchers. But scientists are racing to find new preventive measures, diagnostic tools, and treatments. In the meantime, there are risk factors you can identify now, and steps you can take to help detect some symptoms early on.

Huntington’s Disease 

What Is It?

An inherited gene defect creates a mutant protein that wipes out brain neurones and, over a period of up to 25 years, leads to issues such as involuntary jerking, impaired speech and balance, and psychiatric problems like extreme impulsiveness.

Symptoms and Diagnosis 

Uncontrolled face or limb twitching, loss of coordination, depression, and irritability are all red flags. If you have a family history, a single blood test can confirm whether you’re a carrier and will go on to develop the disease.

Action Plan

Researchers are exploring ways to shut down mutated proteins. Until they succeed, prescription drugs can combat motility loss, mood swings, and depression; regular exercise can keep muscles steady; and maintaining a healthy weight can slow disease progression, says Dr. Diana Rosas, a neurodegenerative disease expert at Massachusetts General Hospital. At-risk women and those who are gene-positive can protect their future children thanks to advances in science: Via IVF, doctors can scan embryos and implant only those that do not carry Huntington’s DNA.


What Is It?

Researchers suspect rogue proteins cause tangles and plaque deposits between the brain’s nerve cells, blocking communication in areas related to memory and movement, a progression that can take up to 20 years. The majority of incidences are believed to stem partly from a mix of genetic and lifestyle factors; a single inherited gene is the culprit behind just 5 percent of cases

Early Alzheimer’s or Harmless Blip?

The occasional space-out is fine. But if you notice any of these more intense signs, see your doctor.


Normal: Briefly forgetting a name
Not: Being told you repeatedly ask the same question (e.g., Where did you get that top?)


Normal: Thinking it’s Tuesday when it’s really Monday
Not: Thinking a party was last week when it was months ago


Normal: Having a word stuck on the tip of your tongue
Not: Regularly losing your train of thought mid-conversation

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Nascent clues include social withdrawal, memory loss, and personality changes. Doctors use diagnostic tools such as blood tests, brain imaging, and cognitive evaluations. (Research shows Alzheimer’s-related impairment can be detected 20 to 30 years before noticeable symptoms of the disease, says Dr. Dean Hartley, director of science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association.)

Action Plan

If you smoke, stop. Cigarettes may be behind as many as 14 percent of all cases. While you’re at it, watch your meds. A recent study found that regularly taking benzodiazepines (typically used to combat anxiety) for three to six months may raise your risk by 32 percent; the more you take, the greater your chances. High cholesterol and high blood pressure could also up your odds, so eat a diet low in saturated fats and exercise regularly. In those already diagnosed, prescription medications can delay memory loss. And anyone can help lower their risk with crossword puzzles and brain games (yes, even Candy Crush Saga!).


What Is It?

Neurones in the brain that produce dopamine —a.k.a. the “happy hormone” that also helps control muscle movement—die off. Once 80 percent are gone, a process that can take 15 years, patients experience tremors, rigid muscle movement, and cognitive impairment. Roughly 10 percent of cases have been linked to a single gene defect (still, testing positive does not mean you’re guaranteed to develop it). The other 90 percent stems from a mix of DNA factors and environmental triggers such as head injuries and exposure to herbicides and pesticides.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Warning signs include depression (from the dopamine shortage) and persistent muscle spasms, pain, or tightness. No concrete diagnostic test exists, so physicians have to evaluate patients over time and try out various Parkinson’s drugs. Fortunately, the disease is rarely fatal, and medications can help many people live long lives.

Action Plan

Diet may help: Eating peppers (such as red or green) may cut your risk by 30 percent; flavonoid-rich blueberries and strawberries can slash your odds by 40 percent, per a Harvard University study.

High-Tech Treatments: These Parkinson’s therapies seem straight-up futuristic, but some are already vastly improving lives.

Deep Brain Stimulation: A battery implanted in areas of the brain that control movement delivers electrical stimulation that blocks tremors.

Liftware: This battery-powered smart spoon “autocorrects” tremors as a patient eats.

Wearables: Researchers are currently testing a symptom-tracking smart watch that may help patients manage the disease.

Looking for more info? Here’s the lowdown on motor neurone disease and the symptoms you should look out for. 

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