Dementia and Down’s Syndrome: The key link between Down’s Syndrome and Alzheimer’s

New Down's Syndrome test on NHS

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Down’s Syndrome is a condition that occurs when you’re born with an extra chromosome, causing learning disabilities and distinct facial and bodily features. The syndrome can cause a number of complications, from heart defects to obesity, but lots of people don’t realise that Down’s Syndrome also increases your risk of dementia. Here’s why.

Age is a major risk factor of dementia, with two in 100 people aged 65 to 69 having the condition compared to one in five people aged between 85 and 89.

There is evidence to suggest some biological problems related to ageing can start earlier in people with Down’s syndrome, including memory loss and dementia.

Some experts say people with Down’s Syndrome have a greatly increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s signs and symptoms typically start to pop up around the age of 50.

However, others suggest there isn’t an increased risk but dementia can occur 30 to 40 years earlier in people with Down’s Syndrome.

Why do people with Down’s Syndrome have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s?

People with Down’s Syndrome are born with an extra piece of DNA, which means they also have an extra copy of the APP gene.

Alzheimer’s Research UK explained: “This leads to the build-up of amyloid plaques in the brain, which play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“While not everyone with Down Syndrome will go on to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s, most people with the condition over the age of 40 will have amyloid build-up.

“It is estimated that about 50 percent of people with Down syndrome develop symptoms like memory loss, usually in their 50’s and 60’s.”

The average life expectancy today for people with Down’s Syndrome is 50 to 60 years old, compared to an average of nine years in around 1900.

The increased life expectancy means problems relating to old age in people with Down’s Syndrome are only just starting to be researched and addressed.

The Downs Syndrome Organisation explains: “Too often, in the past, the development of symptoms of dementia would be ascribed to the person’s learning disability rather than recognised as being due to dementia (particularly when being assessed by strangers) but these days far more is known about the subject.

“Assessment is essential when deterioration in later life is observed, as such change may not be due to dementia but to another condition that presents with similar symptoms but is treatable.

“A diagnosis of dementia should not be made without first eliminating the other possibilities.”

Doctors at the Adult Down Syndrome Center of Lutheran General Hospital, Chicago, studied the causes of a decline in function in 148 adults with Down’s syndrome.

Out of those 148, only four percent were given an eventual diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

The rest of those people all had different problems associated with ageing such as depression and sleep problems.

Nonetheless, it’s crucial to know the symptoms of dementia in people with Down’s Syndrome to make sure the person receives the right treatment early on.

Adults with the condition are advised to have regular check-ups from around the age of 30 to look for any possible signs of dementia.

The NHS site says it can help to look out for signs such as:

  • not being able to remember new things
  • getting confused more easily
  • finding it harder to understand what people are saying

Often these signs can be linked to conditions other than dementia.

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