The lives of children with Down’s Syndrome have been transformed by science

The standard narrative of the onward march of medical progress over the last 70 years focuses naturally enough on the “major breakthroughs” of miracle drugs and pioneering operations. But just as impressive in its way has been the steady incremental transformation of the prospects for the physically and mentally disabled. The backstory to the “historic” parliamentary approval a fortnight ago of the Down’s Syndrome Bill is a case in point.  

Over several decades the average life expectancy of children born with Down’s has improved almost fivefold from a mere 10 years to more than 50. Previously confined to institutions with no formal education, many now attend mainstream schools gaining academic qualifications that lead to paid employment. It verges on the incredible – how did this come about?  

They have, like all children, benefitted from the many advances in modern medicine but particularly open heart surgery to repair those serious cardiac defects that are a common feature of the condition. Then living longer it became apparent that at least some of their intellectual deficit was not intrinsic, but compounded by the sensory deprivation of impaired sight and hearing due to eminently treatable conditions such as refractive errors, cataracts and “glue ear”.  

But the great leap forward – obvious in retrospect if a profoundly imaginative insight at the time – was still to come. For all that had been achieved most children with Down’s still attended special schools. They were thus denied, inferred psychologist Professor Sue Buckley, the crucial stimulus for the acquisition of speech and verbal reasoning in interacting with their peers. That would require them to be placed from an early age into mainstream schools, some gaining academic qualifications, and adapting the curriculum and teaching methods to address their specific needs.  

The results of this experiment when reviewed 10 years later were astonishing with a massive improvement in their expressive language and communication skills. With that came the hope that as adults they could live fuller, richer and longer lives than could ever have been supposed. Hence the Down’s Syndrome Bill requires the Health Secretary to issue statutory guidance to local authorities to ensure this comes about. A remarkable story indeed.

No appetite

This week’s query comes courtesy of Mrs EA from Swansea who for the past few years has had periods of being overwhelmed by nausea and the desire to bring up wind. “I have no appetite and have to force myself to eat,” she writes “and even then I lost a stone in weight”. Then quite suddenly for no apparent reason, all is well again until the next relapse. Her doctors have been very thorough in their investigations but  unable to find a physical explanation and have suggested she must be depressed.  A course of antidepressants exacerbated her symptoms. Might anyone similarly troubled, she wonders, have any useful suggestions?

Pumpkin patch

Finally, further to the merits of a generous glass of red wine every evening in reducing the number of those nocturnal trips to the bathroom, the more abstemious have pointed out this, unfortunately, exceeds their weekly limit. Fortuitously a reader writes to tell of a non-alcoholic alternative. Browsing the internet he read a report claiming that pumpkin seed oil mitigates the urinary frequency in those with prostate problems or an overactive bladder. He duly purchased a supply of capsules from his local health food store. “The results have been quite remarkable,” he writes “ I now sleep through the night undisturbed”. This strikes him as being almost too good to be true, making him wonder whether there might be a downside.  Apparently not. Professor Jun Nishihira of Japan’s Hokkaido University reports that a 12-week course of pumpkin oil in 45 patients with an overactive bladder “significantly improved all their urinary symptoms” with no adverse effects. It is, he notes, “safe and well tolerated”. 

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