Down Syndrome


Down syndrome (DS or DNS), also known as trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. It is typically associated with physical growth delays, characteristic facial features, and mild to moderate intellectual disability. The average IQ of a young adult with Down syndrome is 50, equivalent to the mental ability of an 8 or 9-year-old child, but this can vary widely.

The parents of the affected individual are typically genetically normal. The probability increases from less than 0.1% in 20-year-old mothers to 3% in those age 45. The extra chromosome is believed to occur by chance, with no known behavioral activity or environmental factor that changes the probability. Down syndrome can be identified during pregnancy by prenatal screening followed by diagnostic testing or after birth by direct observation and genetic testing. Since the introduction of screening, pregnancies with the diagnosis are often terminated. Regular screening for health problems common in Down syndrome is recommended throughout the person’s life.

There is no cure for Down syndrome. Education and proper care have been shown to improve quality of life. Some children with Down syndrome are educated in typical school classes, while others require more specialized education. Some individuals with Down syndrome graduate from high school, and a few attend post-secondary education. In adulthood, about 20% in the United States do paid work in some capacity, with many requiring a sheltered work environment. Support in financial and legal matters is often needed. Life expectancy is around 50 to 60 years in the developed world with proper health care.

The extra genetic material present in DS results in overexpression of a portion of the 310 genes located on chromosome 21. This overexpression has been estimated at around 50%. Some research has suggested the Down syndrome critical region is located at bands 21q22.1–q22.3, with this area including genes for amyloid, superoxide dismutase, and likely the ETS2 proto oncogene. Other research, however, has not confirmed these findings. microRNAs are also proposed to be involved.

The dementia which occurs in Down syndrome is due to an excess of amyloid beta peptide produced in the brain and is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. This peptide is processed from amyloid precursor protein, the gene for which is located on chromosome 21. Senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are present in nearly all by 35 years of age, though dementia may not be present. Those with DS also lack a normal number of lymphocytes and produce less antibodies which contributes to their increased risk of infection.

Down syndrome is associated with an increased risk of many chronic diseases that are typically associated with older age such as Alzheimer’s disease. The accelerated aging suggest that trisomy 21 increases the biological age of tissues, but molecular evidence for this hypothesis is sparse. According to a biomarker of tissue age known as epigenetic clock, trisomy 21 increases the age of blood and brain tissue (on average by 6.6 years).

Before birth
When screening tests predict a high risk of Down syndrome, a more invasive diagnostic test (amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling) is needed to confirm the diagnosis. If Down syndrome occurs in one in 500 pregnancies and the test used has a 5% false-positive rate, this means, of 26 women who test positive on screening, only one will have Down syndrome confirmed. If the screening test has a 2% false-positive rate, this means one of eleven who test positive on screening have a fetus with DS. Amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling are more reliable tests, but they increase the risk of miscarriage between 0.5 and 1%. The risk of limb problems is increased in the offspring due to the procedure. The risk from the procedure is greater the earlier it is performed, thus amniocentesis is not recommended before 15 weeks gestational age and chorionic villus sampling before 10 weeks gestational age.

Abortion rates
About 92% of pregnancies in Europe with a diagnosis of Down syndrome are terminated. In the United States, termination rates are around 67%, but this rate varied from 61% to 93% among different populations. Rates are lower among women who are younger and have decreased over time. When nonpregnant people are asked if they would have a termination if their fetus tested positive, 23–33% said yes, when high-risk pregnant women were asked, 46–86% said yes, and when women who screened positive are asked, 89–97% say yes.

After birth
The diagnosis can often be suspected based on the child’s physical appearance at birth. An analysis of the child’s chromosomes is needed to confirm the diagnosis, and to determine if a translocation is present, as this may help determine the risk of the child’s parents having further children with Down syndrome. Parents generally wish to know the possible diagnosis once it is suspected and do not wish pity.

Efforts such as early childhood intervention, screening for common problems, medical treatment where indicated, a good family environment, and work-related training can improve the development of children with Down syndrome. Education and proper care can improve quality of life. Raising a child with Down syndrome is more work for parents than raising an unaffected child. Typical childhood vaccinations are recommended.

Between 5 and 15% of children with Down syndrome in Sweden attend regular school. Some graduate from high school; however, most do not. Of those with intellectual disability in the United States who attended high school about 40% graduated. Many learn to read and write and some are able to do paid work. In adulthood about 20% in the United States do paid work in some capacity. In Sweden, however, less than 1% have regular jobs. Many are able to live semi-independently, but they often require help with financial, medical, and legal matters. Those with mosaic Down syndrome usually have better outcomes.

Individuals with Down syndrome have a higher risk of early death than the general population. This is most often from heart problems or infections. Following improved medical care, particularly for heart and gastrointestinal problems, the life expectancy has increased. This increase has been from 12 years in 1912, to 25 years in the 1980s, to 50 to 60 years in the developed world in the 2000s. Currently between 4 and 12% die in the first year of life. The probability of long-term survival is partly determined by the presence of heart problems. In those with congenital heart problems 60% survive to 10 years and 50% survive to 30 years of age. In those without heart problems 85% survive to 10 years and 80% survive to 30 years of age. About 10% live to 70 years of age. The National Down Syndrome Society have developed information regarding the positive aspects of life with Down syndrome.

Globally, as of 2010, Down syndrome occurs in about 1 per 1000 births and results in about 17,000 deaths. More children are born with Down syndrome in countries where abortion is not allowed and in countries where pregnancy more commonly occurs at a later age. About 1.4 per 1000 live births in the United States and 1.1 per 1000 live births in Norway are affected. In the 1950s, in the United States, it occurred in 2 per 1000 live births with the decrease since then due to prenatal screening and abortions. The number of pregnancies with Down syndrome is more than two times greater with many spontaneously aborting. It is the cause of 8% of all congenital disorders.

Maternal age affects the chances of having a pregnancy with Down syndrome. At age 20, the chance is one in 1441; at age 30, it is one in 959; at age 40, it is one in 84; and at age 50 it is one in 44. Although the probability increases with maternal age, 70% of children with Down syndrome are born to women 35 years of age and younger, because younger people have more children. The father’s older age is also a risk factor in women older than 35, but not in women younger than 35, and may partly explain the increase in risk as women age.

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