We are all differently affected by age. This is dependent on physical and mental health as we get older, with some people remaining fit and active while others have to deal with a decline in health. For people with Down’s syndrome (DS), there is a risk of what is known as accelerated ageing. This is where physical and mental decline shows itself at an earlier age than average.
Down’s syndrome and ageing
People with Down’s syndrome are living longer than ever, thanks to modern medicine and changes in lifestyle. Life expectancy for someone with DS was estimated at just 12 years old back in 1949, whereas now it is nearly 60.
With ageing come considerations such as health and lifestyle choices. For people with learning disabilities, changes in health are not always easy to communicate so keeping up annual health checks is important. For people who receive care and support from family members, continuity of care is a concern as family members age.
Accelerated ageing in people with Down’s syndrome
There are a number of ways in which accelerated ageing can affect people with Down’s syndrome. For women, menopause is likely to occur early. The hormonal effect on emotions can often be dismissed as challenging behaviour if there are no obvious indicators. Signs such as hot flushes are not always easy to interpret or even be aware of for someone with DS. Early menopause also brings an increased risk of osteoporosis, which is already more common in people with DS.
Hearing and vision problems are common in the general population with ageing, but for people with Down’s syndrome, they are more likely to occur at a much younger age. Other signs of ageing such as skin problems, gastrointestinal issues and dental problems are also likely to affect people with DS earlier in life.
There is also an increased risk of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder in people with Down’s syndrome as they age.
Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease
There is a well-documented link between Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease, though not everyone with DS will develop it. It is thought that the link is due to the extra copy of chromosome 21 that people with DS carry. Alzheimer’s is a disease that destroys brain cells, affecting the memory, learning ability, communication and judgement.
The risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age, but it is not always easy to identify and diagnose. People with Down’s syndrome may not be aware of memory problems themselves, or may not report any changes they do notice. It is necessary for those who know the person well to be aware of any changes that may indicate dementia or Alzheimer’s and to arrange an assessment.
Supporting someone with Down’s syndrome as they age
With the number of health problems that are a risk for people with Down’s syndrome, they are likely to need additional support as they get older. It is important for those close to them to be aware of the potential risks and keep watch for symptoms. As we’ve already mentioned, annual health checks are essential. These are an opportunity to check in with a health professional who will perform a series of tests and diagnostics. They may advise changes in diet or lifestyle, or prescribe medication if necessary.
Planning for the future and ensuring a loved one has sufficient support and continuity of care are the best ways to help. This could mean enlisting help from a local authority or charity, or for some people, daycare or residential care is a good option. At Halland House, our learning disabilities care home in Uckfield, East Sussex, we offer day care and residential care with various levels of support. You can visit our website to find out more about our services.