Associated health conditions

Commonly associated health conditions experienced by people with a learning disability are:

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

  • The rate of dementia is high in all people with a learning disability, but it is particularly high in people with Down’s syndrome. 
  • Adults with a learning disability are significantly more likely to be underweight than those without a learning disability.
  • Overall, people with a learning disability have a similar level of obesity to the general population, but some factors are highly associated with obesity.
  • Epilepsy is more prevalent in adults with a learning disability than those without a learning disability.

Underweight

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).

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.

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).

Why people with a learning disability are more likely to have dementia?

Genetic

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.

Environmental

Other research suggests that increased prevalence of dementia amongst people with a learning disability may be due to environmental effects.

Lack of stimulating activities

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).

 

Epilepsy

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.

 

Research references

Here you'll find full referencing for the Mencap research and statistics pages.

Research references

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