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Woody's woes

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The 100th anniversary of the birth of the US political singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie fell on 14 July 2012. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Oklahoma, and his songs were written from his own experiences of the Oklahoma dust bowl and its social consequences.

His early life was punctuated by three fire-related tragedies, resulting in the loss of the family home, the death of his sister and injury to his father. Some have suggested that the fires were caused by Guthrie’s mother Nora. Although not known to be ill at the time, she suffered from Huntington’s disease, from which she was to die in 1930.

The disease is hereditary and eventually brought a premature end to Woody’s own career and life. In the 1940s his behaviour became unpredictable. He was admitted to hospital several times and misdiagnosed as alcoholic and schizophrenic. After being picked up for vagrancy in New Jersey, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he was eventually correctly diagnosed.

Huntington’s disease arises from a faulty gene on chromosome-4. The fault causes damage to the nerve cells of the basal ganglia and cerebral cortex, leading to gradual physical and mental changes. Children of sufferers have a 50 per cent chance of inheriting the faulty gene and contracting the disease.

Symptoms usually develop between the ages of 30 and 50. They include uncontrollable muscle movements, lack of concentration and mood changes. As the disease progresses, the symptoms worsen. Speech and swallowing are affected, and sufferers experience weight loss and deterioration of cognitive ability. There is still no cure for the disease, but medication can manage symptoms of depression, mood swings and involuntary movement, while speech therapy can improve speaking and swallowing problems.

Woody Guthrie died from complications of Huntington’s disease on 3 October 1967.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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