By Daniel J. Vance

The life expectancy in America of persons with Down syndrome has increased exponentially the last 20 years so much so that now for the first time many are being forced to plan for retirement.

"One critical factor in the lengthening of their life spans has been advances in heart surgery," said communications director Jennifer Schell Podoll of the New York City-based National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) to me recently over the telephone. "Atrioventricular septal defect is very operable today, and most people with Down syndrome undergo the procedure within the first six months of life."

In 1910 more than half of all people with Down syndrome died before age 10. By the 1960s, antibiotics had lengthened life spans to about 20 years. A 2002 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that the median age at death in 1983 for a person with Down syndrome was 25. By 1997 it was 49.

"Now people born with Down syndrome will likely live into their 60s and 70s," said Schell Podoll.

Nearly all Down syndrome births are caused by a defective cell division creating an embryo with three No. 21 chromosomes instead of two. An infant with Down syndrome may have an upward eye slant and a flat, small nose; a single, deep crease across the middle of the palm; low muscle tone; and an abnormal ear shape. It is the most frequently noted cause of mental retardation, though usually the retardation is mild.

A 35-year-old woman has one chance in 400 of conceiving a child with Down syndrome. For women age 40 it is one in 110. For age 45 it's one in 35. More than 350,000 Americans have Down syndrome.

Besides atrioventricular septal defect, persons with it are more likely to develop leukemia (15-20 times more risk under age 3) and Alzheimer's disease (25 percent over age 35 are affected). A woman with Down syndrome can have children, but a 50 percent chance exists that her child will have it, too.

Its name comes from Dr. John Langdon Down, of England, who in 1866 published a scholarly review of a person with the syndrome. But it wasn't until 1959 when a French doctor recognized it as a chromosomal anomaly.

For more information contact the National Down Syndrome Society at www.ndss.org or telephone 800-221-4602.

[You can reach Mr. Vance through www.danieljvance.com Copyright 2002 by Daniel J. Vance.]