Down syndrome (sometimes called Down’s syndrome) is a condition in which a child is born with an extra copy of their 21st chromosome — hence its other name, trisomy 21. This causes physical and mental developmental delays and disabilities.
Many of the disabilities are lifelong, and they can also shorten life expectancy. However, people with Down syndrome can live healthy and fulfilling lives. Recent medical advances, as well as cultural and institutional support for people with Down syndrome and their families, provides many opportunities to help overcome the challenges of this condition.
What Causes Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome is a condition in which a person has an extra chromosome. Chromosomes are small “packages” of genes in the body. They determine how a baby’s body forms during pregnancy and how the baby’s body functions as it grows in the womb and after birth. Typically, a baby is born with 46 chromosomes. Babies with Down syndrome have an extra copy of one of these chromosomes, chromosome 21. A medical term for having an extra copy of a chromosome is ‘trisomy.’ Down syndrome is also referred to as Trisomy 21. This extra copy changes how the baby’s body and brain develop, which can cause both mental and physical challenges for the baby.
Even though people with Down syndrome might act and look similar, each person has different abilities. People with Down syndrome usually have an IQ (a measure of intelligence) in the mildly-to-moderately low range and are slower to speak than other children.
Some common physical features of Down syndrome include:
- A flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose
- Almond-shaped eyes that slant up
- A short neck
- Small ears
- A tongue that tends to stick out of the mouth
- Tiny white spots on the iris (colored part) of the eye
- Small hands and feet
- A single line across the palm of the hand (palmar crease)
- Small pinky fingers that sometimes curve toward the thumb
- Poor muscle tone or loose joints
- Shorter in height as children and adults
- Down syndrome remains the most common chromosomal condition diagnosed in the United States. Each year, about 6,000 babies born in the United States have Down syndrome. This means that Down syndrome occurs in about 1 out of every 700 babies.
In all cases of reproduction, both parents pass their genes on to their children. These genes are carried in chromosomes. When the baby’s cells develop, each cell is supposed to receive 23 pairs of chromosomes, for 46 chromosomes total. Half of the chromosomes are from the mother, and half are from the father.
In children with Down syndrome, one of the chromosomes doesn’t separate properly. The baby ends up with three copies, or an extra partial copy, of chromosome 21, instead of two. This extra chromosome causes problems as the brain and physical features develop.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), about 1 in 700 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome. It’s the most common genetic disorder in the United States.
What is Down Syndrome?
In every cell in the human body there is a nucleus, where genetic material is stored in genes. Genes carry the codes responsible for all of our inherited traits and are grouped along rod-like structures called chromosomes. Typically, the nucleus of each cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, half of which are inherited from each parent. Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.
This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome. A few of the common physical traits of Down syndrome are low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes, and a single deep crease across the center of the palm – although each person with Down syndrome is a unique individual and may possess these characteristics to different degrees, or not at all.
How Common is Down Syndrome?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in every 700 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome, making Down syndrome the most common chromosomal condition. About 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year.
When Was Down Syndrome Discovered?
For centuries, people with Down syndrome have been alluded to in art, literature and science. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, however, that John Langdon Down, an English physician, published an accurate description of a person with Down syndrome. It was this scholarly work, published in 1866, that earned Down the recognition as the “father” of the syndrome. Although other people had previously recognized the characteristics of the syndrome, it was Down who described the condition as a distinct and separate entity.
In recent history, advances in medicine and science have enabled researchers to investigate the characteristics of people with Down syndrome. In 1959, the French physician Jérôme Lejeune identified Down syndrome as a chromosomal condition. Instead of the usual 46 chromosomes present in each cell, Lejeune observed 47 in the cells of individuals with Down syndrome. It was later determined that an extra partial or whole copy of chromosome 21 results in the characteristics associated with Down syndrome. In the year 2000, an international team of scientists successfully identified and catalogued each of the approximately 329 genes on chromosome 21. This accomplishment opened the door to great advances in Down syndrome research.
Causes and Risk Factors
- The extra chromosome 21 leads to the physical features and developmental challenges that can occur among people with Down syndrome. Researchers know that Down syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome, but no one knows for sure why Down syndrome occurs or how many different factors play a role.
One factor that increases the risk for having a baby with Down syndrome is the mother’s age. Women who are 35 years or older when they become pregnant are more likely to have a pregnancy affected by Down syndrome than women who become pregnant at a younger age.3-5However, the majority of babies with Down syndrome are born to mothers less than 35 years old, because there are many more births among younger women.
Regardless of the type of Down syndrome a person may have, all people with Down syndrome have an extra, critical portion of chromosome 21 present in all or some of their cells. This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome.
The cause of the extra full or partial chromosome is still unknown. Maternal age is the only factor that has been linked to an increased chance of having a baby with Down syndrome resulting from nondisjunction or mosaicism. However, due to higher birth rates in younger women, 80% of children with Down syndrome are born to women under 35 years of age.
There is no definitive scientific research that indicates that Down syndrome is caused by environmental factors or the parents’ activities before or during pregnancy.
The additional partial or full copy of the 21st chromosome which causes Down syndrome can originate from either the father or the mother. Approximately 5% of the cases have been traced to the father.
Types of Down Syndrome
There are three types of Down syndrome. People often can’t tell the difference between each type without looking at the chromosomes because the physical features and behaviors are similar.
- Trisomy 21: About 95% of people with Down syndrome have Trisomy 21.2 With this type of Down syndrome, each cell in the body has 3 separate copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual 2 copies.
- Translocation Down syndrome: This type accounts for a small percentage of people with Down syndrome (about 3%).2 This occurs when an extra part or a whole extra chromosome 21 is present, but it is attached or “trans-located” to a different chromosome rather than being a separate chromosome 21.
- Mosaic Down syndrome: This type affects about 2% of the people with Down syndrome.2 Mosaic means mixture or combination. For children with mosaic Down syndrome, some of their cells have 3 copies of chromosome 21, but other cells have the typical two copies of chromosome 21. Children with mosaic Down syndrome may have the same features as other children with Down syndrome. However, they may have fewer features of the condition due to the presence of some (or many) cells with a typical number of chromosomes.
There are three types of Down syndrome:
Trisomy 21 means there’s an extra copy of chromosome 21 in every cell. This is the most common form of Down syndrome.
Mosaicism occurs when a child is born with an extra chromosome in some but not all of their cells. People with mosaic Down syndrome tend to have fewer symptoms than those with trisomy 21.
In this type of Down syndrome, children have only an extra part of chromosome 21. There are 46 total chromosomes. However, one of them has an extra piece of chromosome 21 attached.
TRISOMY 21 (NONDISJUNCTION)
Down syndrome is usually caused by an error in cell division called “nondisjunction.” Nondisjunction results in an embryo with three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two. Prior to or at conception, a pair of 21st chromosomes in either the sperm or the egg fails to separate. As the embryo develops, the extra chromosome is replicated in every cell of the body. This type of Down syndrome, which accounts for 95% of cases, is called trisomy 21.
Mosaicism (or mosaic Down syndrome) is diagnosed when there is a mixture of two types of cells, some containing the usual 46 chromosomes and some containing 47. Those cells with 47 chromosomes contain an extra chromosome 21.
Mosaicism is the least common form of Down syndrome and accounts for only about 1% of all cases of Down syndrome. Research has indicated that individuals with mosaic Down syndrome may have fewer characteristics of Down syndrome than those with other types of Down syndrome. However, broad generalizations are not possible due to the wide range of abilities people with Down syndrome possess.
In translocation, which accounts for about 4% of cases of Down syndrome, the total number of chromosomes in the cells remains 46; however, an additional full or partial copy of chromosome 21 attaches to another chromosome, usually chromosome 14. The presence of the extra full or partial chromosome 21 causes the characteristics of Down syndrome.
Certain parents have a greater chance of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, mothers aged 35 and older are more likelyTrusted Source to have a baby with Down syndrome than younger mothers. The probability increases the older the mother is.
Research shows that paternal age also has an effect. One 2003 study found that fathers over 40 had twice the chance of having a child with Down syndrome.
Other parents who are more likely to have a child with Down syndrome include:
- people with a family history of Down syndrome
- people who carry the genetic translocation
It’s important to remember that no one of these factors mean that you’ll definitely have a baby with Down syndrome. However, statistically and over a large population, they may increase the chance that you may.
Though the likelihood of carrying a baby with Down syndrome can be estimated by screening during pregnancy, you won’t experience any symptoms of carrying a child with Down syndrome.
At birth, babies with Down syndrome usually have certain characteristic signs, including:
- flat facial features
- small head and ears
- short neck
- bulging tongue
- eyes that slant upward
- atypically shaped ears
- poor muscle tone
An infant with Down syndrome can be born an average size, but will develop more slowly than a child without the condition.
People with Down syndrome usually have some degree of developmental disability, but it’s often mild to moderate. Mental and social development delays may mean that the child could have:
- impulsive behavior
- poor judgment
- short attention span
- slow learning capabilities
Medical complications often accompany Down syndrome. These may include:
- congenital heart defects
- hearing loss
- poor vision
- cataracts (clouded eyes)
- hip problems, such as dislocations
- chronic constipation
- sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep
- dementia (thought and memory problems)
- hypothyroidism (low thyroid function)
- late tooth growth, causing problems with chewing
- Alzheimer’s disease later in life
There are two basic types of tests available to detect Down syndrome during pregnancy: screening tests and diagnostic tests. A screening test can tell a woman and her healthcare provider whether her pregnancy has a lower or higher chance of having Down syndrome. Screening tests do not provide an absolute diagnosis, but they are safer for the mother and the developing baby. Diagnostic tests can typically detect whether or not a baby will have Down syndrome, but they can be more risky for the mother and developing baby. Neither screening nor diagnostic tests can predict the full impact of Down syndrome on a baby; no one can predict this.
Screening tests often include a combination of a blood test, which measures the amount of various substances in the mother’s blood (e.g., MS-AFP, Triple Screen, Quad-screen), and an ultrasound, which creates a picture of the baby. During an ultrasound, one of the things the technician looks at is the fluid behind the baby’s neck. Extra fluid in this region could indicate a genetic problem. These screening tests can help determine the baby’s risk of Down syndrome. Rarely, screening tests can give an abnormal result even when there is nothing wrong with the baby. Sometimes, the test results are normal and yet they miss a problem that does exist.
Diagnostic tests are usually performed after a positive screening test in order to confirm a Down syndrome diagnosis. Types of diagnostic tests include:
- Chorionic villus sampling (CVS)—examines material from the placenta
- Amniocentesis—examines the amniotic fluid (the fluid from the sac surrounding the baby)
- Percutaneous umbilical blood sampling (PUBS)—examines blood from the umbilical cord
These tests look for changes in the chromosomes that would indicate a Down syndrome diagnosis.
Other Health Problems
Many people with Down syndrome have the common facial features and no other major birth defects. However, some people with Down syndrome might have one or more major birth defects or other medical problems. Some of the more common health problems among children with Down syndrome are listed below.8
- Hearing loss
- Obstructive sleep apnea, which is a condition where the person’s breathing temporarily stops while asleep
- Ear infections
- Eye diseases
- Heart defects present at birth
Health care providers routinely monitor children with Down syndrome for these conditions.
Screening for Down syndrome is offered as a routine part of prenatal care in the United States. If you’re a woman over 35, your baby’s father is over 40, or there’s a family history of Down syndrome, you may want to get an evaluation.
An ultrasound evaluation and blood tests can look for Down syndrome in your fetus. These tests have a higher false-positive rate than tests done at later pregnancy stages. If results aren’t normal, your doctor may follow up with an amniocentesis after your 15th week of pregnancy.
An ultrasound and quadruple marker screen (QMS) test can help identify Down syndrome and other defects in the brain and spinal cord. This test is done between 15 and 20 weeks of pregnancy.
If any of these tests aren’t normal, you’ll be considered at high risk for birth defects.
Additional prenatal tests
Your doctor may order additional tests to detect Down syndrome in your baby. These may include:
- Amniocentesis. Your doctor takes a sample of amniotic fluid to examine the number of chromosomes your baby has. The test is usually done after 15 weeks.
- Chorionic villus sampling (CVS). Your doctor will take cells from your placenta to analyze fetal chromosomes. This test is done between the 9th and 14th week of pregnancy. It can increase your risk of a miscarriage, but according to the Mayo Clinic, only by less than 1 percent.
- Percutaneous umbilical blood sampling (PUBS, or cordocentesis). Your doctor will take blood from the umbilical cord and examine it for chromosomal defects. It’s done after the 18th week of pregnancy. It has a higher risk of miscarriage, so it’s performed only if all other tests are uncertain.
Some women choose not to undergo these tests because of the risk of miscarriage. They’d rather have a child with Down syndrome than lose the pregnancy.
Tests at birth
At birth, your doctor will:
- perform a physical examination of your baby
- order a blood test called a karyotype to confirm Down syndrome
There are two categories of tests for Down syndrome that can be performed before a baby is born: screening tests and diagnostic tests. Prenatal screens estimate the chance of the fetus having Down syndrome. These tests do not tell you for sure whether your fetus has Down syndrome; they only provide a probability. Diagnostic tests, on the other hand, can provide a definitive diagnosis with almost 100% accuracy.
There is an extensive menu of prenatal screening tests now available for pregnant women. Most screening tests involve a blood test and an ultrasound (sonogram). The blood tests (or serum screening tests) measure quantities of various substances in the blood of the mother. Together with a woman’s age, these are used to estimate her chance of having a child with Down syndrome. These blood tests are often performed in conjunction with a detailed sonogram to check for “markers” (characteristics that some researchers feel may have a significant association with Down syndrome). New advanced prenatal screens are now able to detect chromosomal material from the fetus that is circulating in the maternal blood. These tests are not invasive (like the diagnostic tests below), but they provide a high accuracy rate. Still, all of these screens will not definitively diagnose Down syndrome. Prenatal screening and diagnostic tests are now routinely offered to women of all ages.
The diagnostic procedures available for prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are chorionic villus sampling (CVS) and amniocentesis. These procedures, which carry up to a 1% risk of causing a spontaneous termination (miscarriage), are nearly 100% accurate in diagnosing Down syndrome. Amniocentesis is usually performed in the second trimester between 15 and 20 weeks of gestation, CVS in the first trimester between 9 and 14 weeks.
Down syndrome is usually identified at birth by the presence of certain physical traits: low muscle tone, a single deep crease across the palm of the hand, a slightly flattened facial profile and an upward slant to the eyes. Because these features may be present in babies without Down syndrome, a chromosomal analysis called a karyotype is done to confirm the diagnosis. To obtain a karyotype, doctors draw a blood sample to examine the baby’s cells. They photograph the chromosomes and then group them by size, number, and shape. By examining the karyotype, doctors can diagnose Down syndrome. Another genetic test called FISH can apply similar principles and confirm a diagnosis in a shorter amount of time.
Down syndrome is a lifelong condition. Services early in life will often help babies and children with Down syndrome to improve their physical and intellectual abilities. Most of these services focus on helping children with Down syndrome develop to their full potential. These services include speech, occupational, and physical therapy, and they are typically offered through early intervention programs in each state. Children with Down syndrome may also need extra help or attention in school, although many children are included in regular classes.
There’s no cure for Down syndrome, but there’s a wide variety of support and educational programs that can help both people with the condition and their families. The NDSS is just one place to look for programs nationwide.
Available programs start with interventions in infancy. Federal law requires that states offer therapy programs for qualifying families. In these programs, special education teachers and therapists will help your child learn:
- sensory skills
- social skills
- self-help skills
- motor skills
- language and cognitive abilities
Children with Down syndrome often meet age-related milestones. However, they may learn more slowly than other children.
School is an important part of the life of a child with Down syndrome, regardless of intellectual ability. Public and private schools support people with Down syndrome and their families with integrated classrooms and special education opportunities. Schooling allows valuable socialization and helps students with Down syndrome build important life skills.
The lifespan for people with Down syndrome has improved dramatically in recent decades. In 1960Trusted Source, a baby born with Down syndrome often didn’t see their 10th birthday. Today, life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has reached an average of 50 to 60 years.
If you’re raising a child with Down syndrome, you’ll need a close relationship with medical professionals who understand the condition’s unique challenges. In addition to larger concerns — like heart defects and leukemia — people with Down syndrome may need to be guarded from common infections such as colds.
People with Down syndrome are living longer and richer lives now more than ever. Though they can often face a unique set of challenges, they can also overcome those obstacles and thrive. Building a strong support network of experienced professionals and understanding family and friends is crucial for the success of people with Down syndrome and their families.
Early Intervention and many other therapeutic services are offered to people with Down syndrome, and the articles in this section are merely overviews and suggestions. All children, whether they have Down syndrome or not, develop at their own pace. Always speak with your child’s doctor or therapist before starting any new therapies.