Life Expectancy Increases for Individuals with Down Syndrome

In 1929, individuals with Down Syndrome lived to an average age of 9 years old. 9 years old. That is unbelievable! Today in 2005, the life expectancy is 55 years old with many living into their seventies. So what caused the dramatic change? Are individuals with Down Syndrome being born healthier? No, in fact it is society that has grown into a healthier outlook of these individuals. Institutions were the norm in the 20’s and 30’s for anyone who was considered disabled mentally or physically. Medical treatment was minimal - either not available or not offered to this population. Even though about 50% of individuals born with Down Syndrome have a congenital heart defect, they rarely received the proper treatment. The defect can typically be fixed through a relatively simple operation. 40 years ago, however, individuals with Down Syndrome were at the bottom of the list for cardiac surgery. Nowadays, all children born with Down Syndrome have an echo-cardiogram before they ever leave the hospital. This informs both parent and doctor of the first steps in treating any heart maladies. Heart conditions are not the only medical issues that are being proactively treated. Gastrointestinal problems, pneumonia susceptibility, hearing impairments and more are identified early and treated accordingly.

Perhaps as important, if not more important than the medical treatment, is the social change surrounding individuals with Down Syndrome. Home environments have replaced institutions. Educational supports have replaced indifference. Love has replaced fear. These changes have had a dramatic effect on the entire Down Syndrome population; it has added an average of 46 years to their lives! The quality of these lives has increased dramatically as well. Individuals with Down Syndrome are typically moderately to profoundly retarded. With early and intense intervention, these children can learn a great deal and, just like the rest of the population, they continue to learn throughout their lives. There are social, recreational, educational, medical, spiritual, and other opportunities that allow individuals with Down Syndrome to develop and maintain relationships as well as becoming a part of society. With family, friends, and teachers behind them, the limitations placed on these individuals continue to be lifted. From their life expectancy to their rights, individuals with Down Syndrome are constantly pushing the limitations placed on them. They are more able than they are disabled and they are more alike than they are different from any of us. This simple realization from society has had a profound effect on individuals with Down Syndrome – life expectancy is merely one example of the positive change a societal shift in perspective can have.

1. NICHD. (2005). Facts About Down Syndrome. Retrieved 12/28/05 from
2. March of Dimes. (2004). Down Syndrome. Retrieved on 12/30/05 from