Scientists Find Link Between Down Syndrome And Alzheimer's

Megan Ray  |  September 3, 2015

There may be a connection between people born with Down syndrome and older adults who develop Alzheimer's disease. This correlation may bring change to the way people are treated for both conditions and could help medical researchers understand these diseases even more.

According to the Washington Post, children born with Down syndrome have a significant chance of experiencing Alzheimer's disease or dementia later in life, all due to a genetic abnormality that children with the condition get from their parents. The Alzheimer's Association noted that people with Down syndrome are born with an extra chromosome. The general population has two chromosomes, but this population has three. That extra chromosome may cause developmental cognitive issues early on, but it could also cause brain issues later too, as the chromosome may produce too much of a chemical that causes brain cells to die.

A notable difference
Past research has shown that the symptoms associated with these memory-deficient diseases don't show up until later in life, according to The Washington Post. However, things tend to be a little different with Down syndrome patients, who have a shorter lifespan than the rest of the general population, the news publication stated. Autopsy research revealed that changes begin to occur in the brains of Down Syndrome patients as early as their 30s. These brains showed development of plaque and abnormal protein deposits, both with are associated with Alzheimer's disease, the Alzheimer's Association stated. By their 50s, approximately 70 percent of the Down syndrome population will develop some form of dementia, The Washington Post noted. Why does this happen?

Researchers are unsure. However, studies have shown that the neurological process that leads to memory loss and other dementia symptoms is the same for both Down syndrome patients and the general population. Perplexed, scientists are coming together to try and learn more about the two conditions and determine where the correlations lie. The results may help those dealing with Alzheimer's care.

Scientists gathered together in Chicago on May 21 and 22 to share their notes and research on both conditions in hopes of determining the cause behind the two and finding a cure for people with Down syndrome who may be at risk of developing dementia. The study authors know that they have to tread cautiously, as the patients they're dealing with can be very vulnerable emotionally and sometimes don't respond to experiments well. 

The prevalence of Down Syndrome
Prior research on Down syndrome patients has helped scientists make advancements that have doubled the lifespan of those with the condition. However, Down syndrome is also becoming more common, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, about 6,000 babies are born with the condition. The number of infants with Down syndrome increased by 30 percent between 1979 and 2003. The life expectancy for someone with Down syndrome is between 55 and 60 years, according to the Alzheimer's Association. While patients born with the condition are also at a higher risk of developing other health conditions compared to the general population, dementia seems to come out on top of that list.

The study authors, including professor Huntington Potter from the University of Colorado, are very excited to get started, according to The Washington Post. 

"It's a win-win situation," Potter said. "They can help the rest of us, and we can help them." 

The work will be funded by several notable organizations, including the Alzheimer's Association and the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. The scientists are hopeful that the results will yield possibilities for ways to prevent and intervene before those with Down syndrome develop dementia.

Signs of dementia development
If you have a loved one with Down syndrome, there are some tell-tale signs of dementia development that should seem out of the ordinary, the Alzheimer's Association noted. These include:

  • A lack of excitement for activities or willingness to engage with others.
  • Restlessness, irritability and an inability to cooperate.
  • Seizures.
  • Difficulty moving or walking.
  • Acting sad or frightened.

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