Posted by: Bystander PJ13 MAR 2013
The week of 18–23 March 2013 has been designated as Down’s Syndrome Awareness Week, and 21 March has, since 2006, been World Down Syndrome Day.
Down’s syndrome is the most common chromosomal abnormality, affecting about one in 800 births worldwide. It is caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21 — hence the choice of the 21st day of the third month for its annual awareness day.
Some of us are uneasy around people with Down’s syndrome, perhaps partly because they tend to have atypical facial and bodily features and partly because they are known to suffer from learning difficulties. But this handicap is not necessarily severe. Given the opportunity, many can live fruitful lives. For example, a number of people born with Down’s syndrome have had success in the arts and entertainment world as singers, artists and particularly as actors.
At one time, because of their susceptibility to a wide range of medical problems, few people with Down’s syndrome lived beyond their teens. The most prevalent risk is congenital heart disease, affecting as much as 45 per cent. However, advances in medical care, and particularly in cardiology, have raised life expectancy from 12 years a century ago to 60 years today.
Unfortunately, the longer people with Down’s syndrome live, the more likely they are to develop chronic neurodegenerative diseases, and most of those who reach their 40s and 50s begin to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Some years ago, I became acquainted with a young man with Down’s syndrome. Stephen was a delightful companion and, in some ways, was remarkably quick-witted. He had a quirky sense of humour and would enlighten conversation with ingenious wordplay based on things that others had just said.
But Stephen eventually succumbed to dementia and died in his early 50s. Next week I shall take time out to remember the lively, happy person I was lucky to know before his final illness.