1. Health
Send to a Friend via Email

What are the causes of Down Syndrome?

By

Updated March 26, 2005

Question: What are the causes of Down Syndrome?
Answer: Most of the time, the occurrence of Down syndrome is due to a random event that occurred during formation of the reproductive cells, the ovum or sperm. As far as we know, Down syndrome is not attributable to any behavioral activity of the parents or environmental factors. The probability that another child with Down syndrome will be born in a subsequent pregnancy is about 1 percent, regardless of maternal age.

The incidence of Down syndrome rises with increasing maternal age.

For parents of a child with Down syndrome due to translocation trisomy 21, there may be an increased likelihood of Down syndrome in future pregnancies. This is because one of the two parents may be a balanced carrier of the translocation. The translocation occurs when a piece of chromosome 21 becomes attached to another chromosome, often number 14, during cell division. If the resulting sperm or ovum receives a chromosome 14 (or another chromosome), with a piece of chromosome 21 attached and retains the chromosome 21 that lost a section due to translocation, then the reproductive cells contain the normal or balanced amount of chromosome 21. While there will be no Down syndrome associated characteristics exhibited, the individual who develops from this fertilized egg will be a carrier of Down syndrome. Genetic counseling can be sought to find the origin of the translocation.

However, it is important to realize that not all parents of individuals with translocation trisomy 21 are themselves balanced carriers. In such situations, there is no increased risk for Down syndrome in future pregnancies.

Researchers have extensively studied the defects in chromosome 21 that cause Down syndrome. In 88% of cases, the extra copy of chromosome 21 is derived from the mother. In 8% of the cases, the father provided the extra copy of chromosome 21. In the remaining 2% of the cases, Down syndrome is due to mitotic errors, an error in cell division which occurs after fertilization when the sperm and ovum are joined.

Down Syndrome And Maternal Age

Researchers have established that the likelihood that a reproductive cell will contain an extra copy of chromosome 21 increases dramatically as a woman ages. Therefore, an older mother is more likely than a younger mother to have a baby with Down syndrome. However, of the total population, older mothers have fewer babies; about 75% of babies with Down syndrome are born to younger women because more younger women than older women have babies. Only about nine percent of total pregnancies occur in women 35 years or older each year, but about 25% of babies with Down syndrome are born to women in this age group.

The incidence of Down syndrome rises with increasing maternal age. Many specialists recommend that women who become pregnant at age 35 or older undergo prenatal testing for Down syndrome. The likelihood that a woman under 30 who becomes pregnant will have a baby with Down syndrome is less than 1 in 1,000, but the chance of having a baby with Down syndrome increases to 1 in 400 for women who become pregnant at age 35. The likelihood of Down syndrome continues to increase as a woman ages, so that by age 42, the chance is 1 in 60 that a pregnant woman will have a baby with Down syndrome, and by age 49, the chance is 1 in 12. But using maternal age alone will not detect over 75% of pregnancies that will result in Down syndrome.

reproduced from the NIH National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

Learn More About Birth Defects and Down Syndrome.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.