You have probably seen people who have Down syndrome. They have certain physical
features, such as a flatter face and upward slanting eyes. They may have medical problems,
too, such as heart defects. Kids with Down syndrome usually have trouble learning
and are slower to learn how to talk and take care of themselves.
But despite their challenges, kids with Down syndrome can go to regular schools,
make friends, enjoy life, and get jobs when they're older. Getting special help early
— often when they are just babies and toddlers — can be the key to healthier,
happier, more independent lives.
Chromosomes Are the Cause
To understand why Down syndrome happens, you need to understand a little about
chromosomes. What are chromosomes? They're thread-like structures within each cell
and are made up of genes. Genes provide the information that determines everything
about people, from hair color to whether they are girls or boys.
Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46. But a baby with Down
syndrome has an extra chromosome (47 instead of 46) or one chromosome has an extra
part. This extra genetic material causes problems with the way their bodies develop.
Health Problems Are Common
About half of babies with Down syndrome are born with heart defects, which means
their hearts developed differently and don't work as they should. Usually, these problems
can be corrected by surgery. Some babies may have intestinal problems that also require
surgery to fix.
Kids with Down syndrome are more likely to get infections that affect their lungs
and breathing. When they do get infections, they often last longer. They may have
eye or ear problems or digestion problems like constipation.
Some may develop leukemia, a type of cancer. Each person with Down syndrome is different
and may have one, several, or all of these problems.
Kids with Down syndrome tend to grow and develop more slowly than other children
do. They may start walking or talking later than other babies. Special help, such
as physical therapy
and speech therapy,
can give kids a boost with their walking and talking skills.
Do a Lot of People Have Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome is not contagious,
so you can't catch it from someone else. You are born with it. No one gets Down syndrome
later in life. It's one of the most common genetic birth defects (a birth defect is
a problem that happens while a baby is still growing inside his or her mother).
Now you know that Down syndrome is caused by a problem with a chromosome. You might
already know that we get our chromosomes from our mother and father. Remember the
23 pairs of chromosomes — half are from your mom and half are from your dad.
But doctors aren't sure why this chromosome problem happens to some babies. It's
nothing the mom or dad did before the child was born. Anyone can have a baby with
Down syndrome. But the older the mother, the greater the risk.
Times Have Changed
At one time, most kids with Down syndrome did not live past childhood. Many would
often become sick from infections. Others would die from their heart problems or other
problems they had at birth. Today, most of these health problems can be treated and
most kids who have it will grow into adulthood.
Medicines can help with infections
and surgery can correct heart, intestinal,
and other problems. If the person gets leukemia, medical treatments can be very successful.
Down syndrome is something a person will have all of his or her life. But scientists
continue to do research in the hope of finding ways to prevent Down syndrome or at
least improve the health and lives of people who have it.
What's Life Like for Kids With Down Syndrome?
Many kids with Down syndrome go to regular schools and may attend regular classes.
Some need special classes to help them in areas where they have more trouble learning.
Their parents work with teachers and others to come up with a plan for the best way
for each child to learn. Kids with Down syndrome like their playtime, too. They play
sports and participate in activities, such as music lessons or dance classes.
Kids with Down syndrome may look different, but they want to be treated the same
way all kids want to be treated — with respect, fairness, and friendship.