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What About Down Syndrome?

Down Syndrome (DS) is the most common cause of severe mental retardation. It occurs in one out of 700 U.S. babies. DS is perhaps the most feared defect for many prospective parents, especially if the mother is over 35.

People with DS have specific facial features and retardation, which can be mild to severe. They often have heart, bowel, and eye problems, as well as increased susceptibility to infections, childhood leukemia and Alzheimer's disease in later life. DS has been recognized since ancient times, and was given its current name in 1866 by J. Langton Down.

DS babies are born to mothers of all ages, including teens. For unknown reasons -- some speculate environmental factors -- younger women are having more babies who have DS than in the past in the U.S. and Europe.

Published lists of the incidence of DS by age group usually start at age 20. The implication is that women under 20 have even lower rates of DS. However, one study that examined the DS rate for teens found that girls 15 and under gave birth to babies with DS at the same rate as women who were 30 to 35.

About 20 to 30 percent of DS is caused by "old" sperm -- that is, sperm that has been stored in the father's genital tract. The women at risk for this cause of DS are those who have sex less than once a week. The women most likely to fit that profile are women in their 30s or 40s who have been married for years -- newlyweds generally have sex more often -- or unmarried women, especially teens.

Based on the "old sperm" theory, women who use the natural family planning method of birth control might be at greater risk of giving birth to a DS baby because this method requires infrequent intercourse -- creating old sperm -- prior to ovulation, the peak time for conception.

In addition to malfunctioning eggs and sperm, there is a combination of environmental factors and pregnancy-history risks that have a role in causing DS. Whatever the occurrence for DS is for your age, that rate is not equal for all women in your age group.

Here are additional factors that have been found to increase the chance of having baby with this birth defect:

* Exposure to ionizing radiation. This refers to medical X-rays of all kinds and gamma rays from nuclear explosions. The damage from radiation is cumulative. It depends on the number of exposures, the dose of each, and, in the case of X-rays, the part of the body that has been exposed.

* Geographical location. Occasionally, the incidence of DS in one group of babies is higher than that in babies in neighboring areas. In one southern Illinois county, for instance, five times the usual number of babies with DS were born recently, and the average age of the mothers was 22. Something in the environment is the suspected link.

* Having many illnesses before conception

* Drug use in the year before conception.

* Lengthy duration of vaginal bleeding during pregnancy or repeated miscarriages. This is especially true for women under the age of 20.

* A previous child with DS, a close relative with DS, or a grandmother on the mother's side who was at least 30 years old when she gave birth to the mother of the child with DS. This does not, however, apply to the paternal grandmother.

* A positive antibody to the herpes virus. This means the mother has been exposed to herpes, but she may or may not have active signs of the disease.

It's not clear how much each factor, alone or combined with others, increases your risk of having a baby with DS. Not all women who give birth to babies with DS report these conditions, nor will women who have these situations necessarily give birth to a baby with DS.

Fortunately, having a child with DS is not always the tragedy many parents fear. Many appreciate their child's individuality. Some children with DS are seriously retarded and have physical problems requiring frequent surgery. But some are mildly retarded and live near-normal lives if they receive early stimulation and education.

The treatment of these children has changed enormously since the 1980s, due to greater understanding of the capability of people with DS. Some say that the greatest disadvantage these children face is discrimination from others.

A Note About Father's Age

Men 40 years of age and over have a 20 percent greater risk of fathering a baby with a birth defect than do younger men, although paternal age is not associated with Down Syndrome.

Diana Korte lives in Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of Every Woman's Body (Ballantine 1994) and co-author with Roberta Scaer of A Good Birth, A Safe Birth (Harvard Common Press 1992). She is currently writing a book about VBACs.

[Editor's Note: References for this article are available upon request. Please send a SASE to Laine Gerritsen, 1062 Love Court, Boulder, CO 80303.]
COPYRIGHT 1997 Association of Labor Assistants & Childbirth Educators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:discussion of risks and demographics
Author:Korte, Diana
Publication:Special Delivery
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:828
Previous Article:Childbirth Past 35.
Next Article:Risk for Birth Defects by Mother's Age.
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