Common associated health conditions

Research suggests that there are a number of health conditions that people with a learning disability are more likely to experience, including:

  • being underweight or overweight
  • dementia
  • epilepsy
  • respiratory disease.

Adults with a learning disability are significantly more likely to be underweight than those without a learning disability

Bhaumik et al. (2008) estimate that men with a learning disability are 8 times more likely to be underweight than those in the general population, and women with a learning disability 2 times as likely. Meanwhile, 2 large-scale studies estimate that the proportion of adults with a learning disability who are underweight is between 14 and 18.6% (Emerson 2005; Gazizova et al. 2012).

Being underweight was found to be associated with:

  • relatively profound learning disabilities
  • younger age
  • not taking medication for mental health, behavioural or sleep problems (Bhaumik et al. 2008; Emerson 2005).

Overall, people with a learning disability have a similar level of obesity to the general population, but some factors are highly associated with obesity

Rates of obesity of between 21 and 27% have been found in adults with a learning disability in the UK, which is similar to the rate of obesity in the general population (Bhaumik et al. 2008; Emerson 2005; Gazizova et al. 2012). However, research shows that certain factors are associated with higher levels of obesity amongst people with a learning disability, including:

  • being female
  • living in the community
  • having a milder learning disability
  • having Down’s syndrome or Prada-Willi syndrome
  • having a mental health problem (Emerson 2005; Goldstone et al. 2001).

See Public Health England’s (2014) report Obesity and Disability: Children and Young People for more about obesity in children with a learning disability.

Dementia in people with a learning disability

The rate of dementia is high in all people with a learning disability, but it is particularly high in people with Down’s syndrome 

The rate of dementia in adults with a learning disability aged 65 and over, not including people with Down’s syndrome is nearly 5 times the rate of the general population (Strydom et al. 2013).

People with Down’s syndrome have an even greater chance of developing dementia, and at an earlier age. An Irish study found that 15.8% of over 40s with Down’s syndrome had dementia or another serious memory impairment (McCarron et al. 2011). This compares to 6% of over 60s in the general population of Ireland (Pierce et al. 2014).

Another Irish study followed people with Down’s syndrome over a 14-year period and found that:

  • 26.1% had developed dementia by age 50
  • 79.6% had developed dementia by age 60
  • 95.7% had developed dementia by age 68

(McCarron et al. 2014).

  • Men with a learning disability are 8 times more likely to be underweight than those in the general population. Women are twice as likely
  • 16% of over 40s with Down’s syndrome have dementia or another serious memory impairment
  • About 25% of people with a learning disability have epilepsy, compared to 1% of the general population

There appear to be genetic and lifestyle reasons why people with a learning disability are more likely to have dementia

Phipps (2013) notes a link between the genetic basis of Down’s syndrome and dementia. Chromosome 21, which is duplicated in people with Down’s syndrome, is linked to the production of a type of proteins called amyloid. A build-up of this protein is one of the key features of dementia.

Other research suggests that increased prevalence of dementia amongst people with a learning disability may be due to environmental effects. It has been found that engaging in cognitively stimulating activities at a later age can help stop dementia from developing. As people with a learning disability are less likely to be engaged such activities than the general population, it is possible that this has a negative impact on their cognitive functioning (Strydom et al. 2013).

About 25% of people with a learning disability have epilepsy, in comparison to about 1% of the general population

Research indicates that epilepsy is more prevalent in adults with a learning disability than those without a learning disability; and is more common amongst men and those with a higher level of impairment (Joint Epilepsy Council of the UK and Ireland 2011; McGrother et al. 2006). Research also suggests that people with a learning disability who have epilepsy are significantly more likely to exhibit behaviour problems than those without epilepsy (McGrother et al. 2006).

 

For more information about health inequalities and health conditions, see the Improving Health and Lives Learning Disability Observatory. Their website provides lots of information on the health of people with a learning disability.

References

  • Bhaumik, S., Watson, J., Thorp, C., Tyrer, F. and McGrother, C. (2008) ‘Body mass index in adults with intellectual disability: distribution, associations and service implications: a population-based prevalence study,’ Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 52 (4): 287-298.
  • Emerson, E. (2005) ‘Underweight, obesity and exercise among adults with intellectual disabilities in supported accommodation in Northern England,’ Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 49(2): 134-143.
  • Gazizova, D., Puri, B. K., Singh, I. and Dhaliwal, R. (2012) ‘The overweight: obesity and plasma lipids in adults with intellectual disability and mental illness,’ Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56(9): 895-901.
  • Glover, G., and Ayub, M. (2010) ‘How people with learning disabilities die,’ Improving Health and Lives Learning Disabilities Observatory. Available online.
  • Goldstone, A., Thomas, E., Brynes, A., Bell, J., Frost, G., Saeed, N., Hajnal, J., Howard, J., Holland, A. and Bloom, S. (2001). ‘Visceral adipose tissue and metabolic complications of obesity are reduced in Prader-Willi syndrome female adults: evidence for novel influences on body fat distribution,’ The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 86(9): 4330-4338.
  • Joint Epilepsy Council of the UK and Ireland (2011) Epilepsy Prevalence, Incidence and Other Statistics. Available online.
  • McCarron, M., Swinburne, J., Burke, E., McGlinchey, E., Mulryan, N., Andrews, V., Foran, S. and McCallion, P. (2011) Growing Older with an Intellectual Disability in Ireland in 2011: First Results from The Intellectual Disability Supplement of The Irish Longitudian Study on Ageing. School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin. Available online.
  • McGrother, C., Bhaumik,S., Thorp, C., Hauck, A., Branford, D. and Watson, J. (2006) ‘Epilepsy in adults with intellectual disabilities: prevalence, associations and service implications,’ Seizure, 15: 376-386.
  • Phipps, L. (2013) Down's Syndrome and Dementia: what's the Link? Webpage.
  • Pierce, M., Cahill, S. and O'Shea, E. (2014) Prevalence and Projections of Dementia in Ireland, 2011-2046. Available online.
  • Public Health England (2014) Obesity and Disability: Children and Young People. Available online.
  • Strydom, A., Chan, T., King, M., Hassiotis, A. and Livingston, G. (2013) ‘Incidence of dementia in older adults with intellectual disabilities,’ Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34: 1881-1885.

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