Racial Divide Seen in Down Syndrome Deaths

A T L A N T A, June 7, 2001 -- A U.S. government study has found a sharp racial divide in life expectancy for people with Down syndrome, with whites living twice as long as blacks.

Whites with Down syndrome in the United States had a median death age of 50 in 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today. The median age was 25 for blacks, and just 11 for people of other races.

"I don't think we were surprised there was a racial disparity. What did surprise us is the magnitude of this difference," said Dr. J.M. Friedman, a genetics professor at the University of British Columbia who led the study.

Down syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality that causes mental retardation. Children with Down syndrome run a higher risk of heart defects, visual or hearing impairment and other health problems.

Down Does Not Discriminate

Poorer health care among blacks may contribute to the racial gap, Friedman said.

The statistics are a dramatic improvement from the 1960s, when Down syndrome victims of all races had a median age of death of 2 or younger, the CDC said.

Friedman explained that 30 years ago it was considered inappropriate to perform surgery on a Down infant. Surgery has become much more common. Health officials also credit antibiotics developed since the 1960s.

The CDC study analyzed 34,000 Down-related deaths in the United States between 1968 and 1997. The 30-year study showed a gradual increase in median death age for whites with Down — from 2 years in 1968 to 50 in 1997. For blacks, Down remained mostly a childhood killer until the mid-1990s.

The study appeared to show that Down does not discriminate in whom it strikes. About 87 percent of the deaths were whites and about 12 percent blacks — roughly in line with national demographics for the 30 years.

The National Down Syndrome Society said the study indicates a "serious disparity that really needs to be addressed."

"We always acted on the assumption that there was some kind of socio-economic kind of disparity," said Jennifer Schell Podoll, a spokeswoman. "But we're very surprised reading that survey to find out the racial disparity was so stark."