You have probably seen people who have Down syndrome. They have certain physical features, such as a flatter face and upward slanting eyes.
They may have medical problems, too, such as heart defects. Kids with Down syndrome usually have trouble learning and are slower to learn how to talk and take care of themselves. But despite their challenges, kids with Down syndrome can go to regular schools, make friends, enjoy life, and get jobs when they're older. Getting special help early — often when they are just babies and toddlers — can be the key to healthier, happier, more independent lives.
Chromosomes Are the Cause
To understand why Down syndrome happens, you need to understand a little about chromosomes. What are chromosomes? They're thread-like structures within each cell and are made up of genes. Genes provide the information that determines everything about people, from hair color to whether they are girls or boys.
Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46. But a baby with Down syndrome has an extra chromosome (47 instead of 46) or one chromosome has an extra part. This extra genetic material causes problems with the way their bodies develop.
Health Problems Are Common
About half of babies with Down syndrome are born with heart defects, which means their hearts developed differently and don't work as they should. Usually, these problems can be corrected by surgery. Some babies may have intestinal problems that also require surgery to fix.
Kids with Down syndrome are more likely to get infections that affect their lungs and breathing. When they do get infections, they often last longer. They may have eye or ear problems or digestion problems like constipation. Some may develop leukemia, a type of cancer. Each person with Down syndrome is different and may have one, several, or all of these problems.
Kids with Down syndrome tend to grow and develop more slowly than other children do. They may start walking or talking later than other babies. Special help, such as physical therapy and speech therapy, can give kids a boost with their walking and talking skills.
Do a Lot of People Have Down Syndrome?
About 1 out of every 800 babies born has Down syndrome, no matter what race or nationality the parents are. It is not contagious, so you can't catch it from someone else. You are born with it. No one gets Down syndrome later in life.
Now you know that Down syndrome is caused by a problem with a chromosome. You might already know that we get our chromosomes from our mother and father. Remember the 23 pairs of chromosomes — half are from your mom and half are from your dad.
But doctors aren't sure why this chromosome problem happens to some babies. It's nothing the mom or dad did before the child was born. Anyone can have a baby with Down syndrome. But the older the mother, the greater the risk.
Times Have Changed
At one time, most kids with Down syndrome did not live past childhood. Many would often become sick from infections. Others would die from their heart problems or other problems they had at birth. Today, most of these health problems can be treated and most kids who have it will grow into adulthood.
Medicines can help with infections and surgery can correct heart, intestinal, and other problems. If the person gets leukemia, medical treatments can be very successful.
Down syndrome is something a person will have all of his or her life. But scientists continue to do research in the hope of finding ways to prevent Down syndrome or at least improve the health and lives of people who have it.
What's Life Like for Kids With Down Syndrome?
Many kids with Down syndrome go to regular schools and may attend regular classes. Some need special classes to help them in areas where they have more trouble learning. Their parents work with teachers and others to come up with a plan for the best way for each child to learn. Kids with Down syndrome like their playtime, too. They play sports and participate in activities, such as music lessons or dance classes.
Because they look different, some kids may tease or bully kids who have Down syndrome. But these kids have feelings just like anybody else. When they get teased, it hurts their feelings. They want to be accepted and have friends. If you know someone with Down syndrome, you can be a big help by not teasing him or her. Instead, offer a helping hand and a friendly word of encouragement.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2009