Home > Dementia risk, Developmental disabilities > Alzheimer’s and Down Syndrome

Alzheimer’s and Down Syndrome

In recent years, it has become clear to researchers that persons with Down syndrome have a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  Not only that, but they tend to show signs of Alzheimer’s at a much earlier age.  One estimate is that at least 25% of those with Down syndrome who are over the age of 35 show signs of Alzheimer’s-type dementia. It is also estimated that three to five times more people with Down syndrome will develop Alzheimer’s than the general population.

Why this happens is something that the medical community still isn’t sure about.  The prevailing theory is that the extra genetic material present in Down syndrome may lead to abnormalities in the immune system, leading to a greater susceptibility to a number of different illnesses.  In addition, those with Downs are known to age at a faster rate than the general population.  Personally speaking, I have observed that many persons who exhibit other forms of developmental disorders will also age at a faster rate.

These individuals will also commonly show different symptoms of dementia than might be expected.  Memory loss is not always as apparent in the early stages, possibly because those with Down syndrome will often have difficulties with short-term memory from childhood.  Not all symptoms generally associated with Alzheimer’s will be seen in these persons.  Typically they will have increasing difficulty with activities of daily living.  The development of seizures, where none were previously noted, will occur.  Changes in mental processing — such as thinking, reasoning, and judgment — will also be seen, but perhaps not to as great an extent as with others who have Alzheimer’s, because these abilities were not as developed to begin with.

Personally speaking, I have been interested for some time in how those with developmental disabilities age.  It’s only been in the last 10-20 years that there has been any kind of serious research done on the subject, at least partly due to the fact that it has only been in the last generation that people with significant developmental impairments have lived long enough for that to be a factor.  But I have encountered several persons with Down syndrome who lived into their 60s, and those with non-specific deficits who lived to be much older than that.  Having worked with young adults who were developmentally disabled, early in my professional career, I eagerly look forward to more and more research on how we can better help these people live a full and rewarding life.

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