You might be surprised to learn there's been an increase in the number of children born with Down syndrome in recent years. The conventional wisdom holds that with more prenatal screening, the rate at which children would be born with Down syndrome would have fallen.
Heidi Moore holds her son, Jacob, 8, at their home in Alpharetta, Georgia in 2008. Jacob has Down Syndrome but takes music therapy class, reads at an age-appropriate level and plays piano.
Heidi Moore holds her son, Jacob, 8, at their home in Alpharetta, Georgia in 2008. Jacob has Down Syndrome but takes music therapy class, reads at an age-appropriate level and plays piano. Jenni Girtman/AP
But as researchers write in the latest issue of the medical journal Pediatrics, there was an increase in Down syndrome births between 1979 and 2003. "It went up by 31 percent—from 9 per 10,000 births to 12 per 10,000 births," says Dr. Adolfo Correa, an epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and co-author of the study.
Correa says the most likely reason for the increase is that women wait longer to have children, which increases the chances of a child being born with Down syndrome. "The prevalence of Down syndrome is five times higher among births to women who are 35 years of age and older," says Correa.
But there may be other reasons. One, which shows up in the study, is that children with Down syndrome are leading longer, healthier lives. And that may encourage a pregnant woman, who learns she may give birth to a child with Down syndrome, not to terminate a pregnancy.
Indeed, kids with Down syndrome now go to regular schools and some, these days, even go on to college. There's support for families, too, from groups like the National Down Syndrome Society and the National Down Syndrome Congress.
The study looked at births and also at the number of children with Down syndrome, up to age 19, living in 10 population centers. In 2002, the researchers found that Down syndome "was present in 1 of every 971 children and adolescents who were age 0 to 19 and living in 10 US regions." The absolute number of people with Down syndrome in the US is about 83,000.
There are differences by race and ethnicity, the researchers found. Hispanic families were most likely to have a child with Down syndrome, followed by non-Hispanic white families. African-American families were the least likely to report having a child with Down syndrome.
The Pediatrics study doesn't explain the differences, but Correa speculates that poorer black families may not have the same access to health care. And without good health care, children with Down syndrome, who sometimes have heart defects or other health problems, may not live as long.