Children, adolescents, and adults with Down syndrome are at higher risk for a variety of conditions and complications beyond the basic associated intellectual and developmental disabilities. Being familiar with the health problems commonly seen in people with Down syndrome is so important. It allows you to take proactive steps to prevent or minimize these problems, to monitor carefully for them, and to get prompt intervention for them should they manifest. And all of this of course promotes quality of life.
Health Concerns Often Seen with Down Syndrome
- Heart defects – Nearly half of people with Down syndrome have a heart defect, and a little over 10 percent are born with one severe enough that it requires surgical treatment within the first few months of life.
- Hearing impairment – As many as 8 in 10 children with Down syndrome experience hearing loss, often due to structural problems with their ears and/or chronic ear infections. This commonly causes problems with speech development. Many issues can be corrected or improved, and it’s important to quickly treat ear infections.
- Vision impairment – Nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatisms, cataracts, a cross-eyed appearance, and involuntary eye movements all manifest with higher frequency in those with Down syndrome, and more than half of them have some vision problems. Glasses, surgery, and other interventions are available to help.
- Sleep disturbances – More than half of kids with Down syndrome experience sleep disturbances, which typically include things like behavioral problems at bedtime, insomnia, difficulty sleeping through the night, and obstructive sleep apnea. Read more about sleep issues in children with Down syndrome.
- Infections – Those with Down syndrome are more susceptible to infections, and they have greater difficulty fighting them off. This is believed to be because of problems with the immune system. Ear infections, pneumonia and other respiratory infections, skin infections, bladder infections, and others are health problems commonly seen in people with Down syndrome. Even infections that seem minor must be treated promptly and aggressively under a doctor’s supervision.
- Hypotonia – Hypotonia is the name for poor muscle tone. In babies with Down syndrome, it can cause difficulties with developmental milestones like rolling over, sitting up, and crawling, as well as with feeding. Physical therapy helps, and children can even participate in physical activities like sports.
- Hypothyroidism – This is a condition where the body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones. It may exist from birth or develop later in life, so occasional screening of thyroid hormone levels is recommended. The condition, which can cause low energy, trouble regulating body temperature, constipation, memory problems, depression, and other symptoms, is manageable with a thyroid supplement.
- Dementia – Almost everyone with Down syndrome over the age of 30 shows physiological signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but not all individuals develop the condition. People with Down syndrome generally don’t report symptoms associated with the early stages of the disease, so it’s important that family, friends, or caregivers pick up on the clues so interventions can be used to slow the progression.
- Mental health problems – Mental health problems commonly seen in people with Down syndrome include aggression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, repetitive motions, anxiety, depression, and other behavioral and emotional issues. They are also more likely to struggle with coping with these issues in positive ways. A mental health professional—preferably one with experience working with people who have Down syndrome—can help.