What is Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome, Down's syndrome, or trisomy 21 is a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of all or part of an extra 21st chromosome. It is named after John Langdon Down, the British doctor who described the syndrome in 1866. The disorder was identified as a chromosome 21 trisomy by Jérôme Lejeune in 1959. The condition is characterized by a combination of major and minor differences in structure. Often Down syndrome is associated with some impairment of cognitive ability and physical growth as well as facial appearance. Down syndrome in a baby can be identified with amniocentesis during pregnancy or at birth.
Individuals with Down syndrome tend to have a lower than average cognitive ability, often ranging from mild to moderate developmental disabilities. A small number have severe to profound mental disability. The incidence of Down syndrome is estimated at 1 per 800 to 1,000 births, although these statistics are heavily influenced by the age of the mother. Other factors may also play a role.
Many of the common physical features of Down syndrome also appear in people with a standard set of chromosomes. They may include a single transverse palmar crease (a single instead of a double crease across one or both palms, also called the Simian crease), an almond shape to the eyes caused by an epicanthic fold of the eyelid, upslanting palpebral fissures (the separation between the upper and lower eyelids), shorter limbs, poor muscle tone, a larger than normal space between the big and second toes, and protruding tongue. Health concerns for individuals with Down syndrome include a higher risk for congenital heart defects, gastroesophageal reflux disease, recurrent ear infections, obstructive sleep apnea, and thyroid dysfunctions.
Early childhood intervention, screening for common problems, medical treatment where indicated, a conducive family environment, and vocational training can improve the overall development of children with Down syndrome. Although some of the physical genetic limitations of Down syndrome cannot be overcome, education and proper care will improve quality of life.
Cognitive development in children with Down syndrome is quite variable. It is not currently possible at birth to predict the capabilities of any individual reliably, nor are the number or appearance of physical features predictive of future ability. The identification of the best methods of teaching each particular child ideally begins soon after birth through early intervention programs. Since children with Down syndrome have a wide range of abilities, success at school can vary greatly, which underlines the importance of evaluating children individually. The cognitive problems that are found among children with Down syndrome can also be found among typical children. Therefore, parents can use general programs that are offered through the schools or other means.
Language skills show a difference between understanding speech and expressing speech, and commonly individuals with Down syndrome have a speech delay, requiring speech therapy to improve expressive language. Fine motor skills are delayed and often lag behind gross motor skills and can interfere with cognitive development. Effects of the disorder on the development of gross motor skills are quite variable. Some children will begin walking at around 2 years of age, while others will not walk until age 4. Physical therapy, and/or participation in a program of adapted physical education (APE), may promote enhanced development of gross motor skills in Downs Syndrome children.
Individuals with Down syndrome differ considerably in their language and communication skills. It is routine to screen for middle ear problems and hearing loss; low gain hearing aids or other amplification devices can be useful for language learning. Early communication intervention fosters linguistic skills. Language assessments can help profile strengths and weaknesses; for example, it is common for receptive language skills to exceed expressive skills. Individualized speech therapy can target specific speech errors, increase speech intelligibility, and in some cases encourage advanced language and literacy. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods, such as pointing, body language, objects, or graphics are often used to aid communication. Relatively little research has focused on the effectiveness of communications intervention strategies.
In education, mainstreaming of children with Down syndrome is becoming less controversial in many countries. For example, there is a presumption of mainstream in many parts of the UK. Mainstreaming is the process whereby students of differing abilities are placed in classes with their chronological peers. Children with Down syndrome may not age emotionally/socially and intellectually at the same rates as children without Down syndrome, so over time the intellectual and emotional gap between children with and without Down syndrome may widen. Complex thinking as required in sciences but also in history, the arts, and other subjects can often be beyond the abilities of some, or achieved much later than in other children. Therefore, children with Down syndrome may benefit from mainstreaming provided that some adjustments are made to the curriculum.
Some European countries such as Germany and Denmark advise a two-teacher system, whereby the second teacher takes over a group of children with disabilities within the class. A popular alternative is cooperation between special schools and mainstream schools. In cooperation, the core subjects are taught in separate classes, which neither slows down the typical students nor neglects the students with disabilities. Social activities, outings, and many sports and arts activities are performed together, as are all breaks and meals.
The medical consequences of the extra genetic material in Down syndrome are highly variable and may affect the function of any organ system or bodily process. The health aspects of Down syndrome encompass anticipating and preventing effects of the condition, recognizing complications of the disorder, managing individual symptoms, and assisting the individual and his/her family in coping and thriving with any related disability or illnesses.
Down syndrome can result from several different genetic mechanisms. This results in a wide variability in individual symptoms due to complex gene and environment interactions. Prior to birth, it is not possible to predict the symptoms that an individual with Down syndrome will develop. Some problems are present at birth, such as certain heart malformations. Others become apparent over time, such as epilepsy.
The most common manifestations of Down syndrome are the characteristic facial features, cognitive impairment, congenital heart disease (typically a ventricular septal defect), hearing deficits (maybe due to sensory-neural factors, or chronic serous otitis media, also known as Glue-ear), short stature, thyroid disorders, and Alzheimer's disease. Other less common serious illnesses include leukemia, immune deficiencies, and epilepsy.
However, health benefits of Down syndrome include greatly reduced incidence of many common malignancies except leukemia and testicular cancer — although it is, as yet, unclear whether the reduced incidence of various fatal cancers among people with Down syndrome is as a direct result of tumor-suppressor genes on chromosome 21 (such as Ets2), because of reduced exposure to environmental factors that contribute to cancer risk, or some other as-yet unspecified factor. In addition to a reduced risk of most kinds of cancer, people with Down syndrome also have a much lower risk of hardening of the arteries and diabetic retinopathy.
These factors can contribute to a shorter life expectancy for people with Down syndrome. One study, carried out in the United States in 2002, showed an average lifespan of 49 years, with considerable variations between different ethnic and socio-economic groups. However, in recent decades, the life expectancy among persons with Down Syndrome has increased significantly up from 25 years in 1980. The causes of death have also changed, with chronic neurodegenerative diseases becoming more common as the population ages. Most people with Down Syndrome who survive into their 40s and 50s begin to suffer from an alzheimer's-like dementia.
Fertility amongst both males and females is reduced; males are usually unable to father children, while females demonstrate significantly lower rates of conception relative to unaffected individuals. Approximately half of the offspring of someone with Down's syndrome also have the syndrome themselves. There have been only three recorded instances of males with Down syndrome fathering children.
This is a useful parent pack on Down Syndrome available from Down Syndrome Ireland.