Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition that is associated with intellectual disability, a characteristic facial appearance, and poor muscle tone (hypotonia) in infancy. The degree of intellectual disability varies, but it is usually mild to moderate.
People with Down syndrome may be born with a variety of birth defects. About half of all affected children have a heart defect. Digestive abnormalities, such as a blockage of the intestine, are less common.
Individuals with Down syndrome have an increased risk of developing several medical conditions. These include gastroesophageal reflux, which is a backflow of acidic stomach contents into the esophagus, and celiac disease, which is an intolerance of a wheat protein called gluten. About 15 percent of people with Down syndrome have an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ in the lower neck that produces hormones. Individuals with Down syndrome also have an increased risk of hearing and vision problems. Additionally, about 1 percent of children with Down syndrome develop cancer of blood-forming cells (leukemia).
Adults with Down syndrome have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer disease, a brain disorder that results in a gradual loss of memory, judgment, and ability to function. Although Alzheimer disease is usually a disorder that occurs in older adults, about half of adults with Down syndrome develop this condition by age 50.
Down syndrome occurs in about 1 in 740 newborns. Although women of all ages can have a child with Down syndrome, the chance of having a child with this condition increases as a woman gets older.
Most cases of Down syndrome result from trisomy 21, which means each cell in the body has three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two copies. The extra genetic material disrupts the normal course of development, causing the characteristic features of Down syndrome.
A small percentage of people with Down syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21 in only some of the body's cells. In these people, the condition is called mosaic Down syndrome.
Down syndrome can also occur when part of chromosome 21 becomes attached (translocated) to another chromosome during the formation of reproductive cells (eggs and sperm) or very early in fetal development. Affected people have two copies of chromosome 21, plus extra material from chromosome 21 attached to another chromosome. Affected individuals with this genetic change are said to have translocation Down syndrome.
Read more about chromosome 21.
Most cases of Down syndrome are not inherited. When the condition is caused by trisomy 21, the chromosomal abnormality occurs as a random event during the formation of reproductive cells. The abnormality usually occurs in egg cells, but it occasionally occurs in sperm cells. An error in cell division called nondisjunction results in a reproductive cell with an abnormal number of chromosomes. For example, an egg or sperm cell may gain an extra copy of chromosome 21. If one of these atypical reproductive cells contributes to the genetic makeup of a child, the child will have an extra chromosome 21 in each of the body's cells.
Mosaic Down syndrome is also not inherited. It occurs as a random event during cell division early in fetal development. As a result, some of the body's cells have the usual two copies of chromosome 21, and other cells have three copies of this chromosome.
Translocation Down syndrome can be inherited. An unaffected person can carry a rearrangement of genetic material between chromosome 21 and another chromosome. This rearrangement is called a balanced translocation because there is no extra material from chromosome 21. Although they do not have signs of Down syndrome, people who carry this type of balanced translocation are at an increased risk of having children with the condition.
These resources address the management of Down syndrome and may include treatment providers.
You might also find information on treatment of Down syndrome in
Educational resources and Patient support.
You may find the following resources about Down syndrome helpful. These materials are written for the general public.
You may also be interested in these resources, which are designed for healthcare professionals and researchers.
- Down's Syndrome
- Trisomy 21
The Handbook provides basic information about genetics in clear language.
These links provide additional genetics resources that may be useful.
The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for
professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about
a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified
See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.