Racial Divide Seen in Down Syndrome Deaths

ByErin Mcclam

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

Whites with Down syndrome in the United States had a mediandeath age of 50 in 1997, the Centers for Disease Control andPrevention said today. The median age was 25 for blacks, andjust 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," saidDr. J.M. Friedman, a genetics professor at the University ofBritish Columbia who led the study.

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

Down Does Not Discriminate

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

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

Friedman explained that 30 years ago it was consideredinappropriate to perform surgery on a Down infant. Surgery hasbecome much more common. Health officials also credit antibioticsdeveloped since the 1960s.

The CDC study analyzed 34,000 Down-related deaths in the UnitedStates between 1968 and 1997. The 30-year study showed a gradualincrease in median death age for whites with Down — from 2 years in1968 to 50 in 1997. For blacks, Down remained mostly a childhoodkiller until the mid-1990s.

The study appeared to show that Down does not discriminate inwhom it strikes. About 87 percent of the deaths were whites andabout 12 percent blacks — roughly in line with nationaldemographics 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 ofsocio-economic kind of disparity," said Jennifer Schell Podoll, aspokeswoman. "But we're very surprised reading that survey to findout the racial disparity was so stark."

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