Aging with A Developmental Disability

There is evidence that men and women with developmental disabilities are subject to some differences in the onset and progress of aging due to hereditary, environmental and lifestyle factors. This adds to the complexity of the aging process for this population and increases the challenge facing caregivers.

Onset of Aging

While many people with a developmental disability enjoy the same life expectancy as the general population, there is evidence that the effects of aging can begin earlier and progress more quickly in some cases. Consequently, while all people begin to experience the effects of aging in their 40’s, some persons with a developmental disability may require a greater level of adjustment in support at a younger age than the general population. Caregivers must pay attention to factors associated with aging such as changes in social roles, activity level, interests, behaviour patterns, response to things in the environment and health conditions, if they are to provide effective support.


Some of the genetic aspects of specific developmental disabilities may impact the aging process. For example, persons with Down Syndrome are subject to a number of factors that can influence the onset and progression of aging. These include:

  • A greater tendency to experience respiratory difficulties, which can in turn limit capacity for physical activity.
  • Early onset of hearing loss in some individuals – as early as their 20’s; if undetected this could lead to behavioural symptoms that may be misinterpreted as a psychiatric disorder.
  • Genetic predisposition to develop Alzheimer Disease; symptoms often show up in the mid 40’s but have been reported as early as the mid 30’s for some individuals.

People with Prader-Willi syndrome are at higher risk of diabetes mellitus. Diabetes results in the debilitation of internal organs and can result in severe compromises to health and even death.

Nervous System Compromise

Central nervous system compromise resulting in an associated developmental disability such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy and some forms of visual impairment may exacerbate the onset and progression of aging.

Environmental Factors and Lifestyle

Where a person lives may influence health and result in conditions that affect the aging process. For example, institutional settings may pose risks of infections; community group home settings may pose risk due to lifestyle choices that result in lack of exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, poor diet, unsafe sex, drug use.

Access to Basic Healthcare Services

Access is not merely about getting an appointment with a physician or visiting a clinic. People with developmental disabilities often have health problems associated with their developmental disability. For this reason it is important that the health care practitioner, who may not have much knowledge of developmental disabilities, receives guidance on a monitoring regime that fits with the needs and risks of the individual. It is also important to find the right practitioners with the requisite specialties that are needed by the individual.


Persons with a developmental disability may not always have insight into the effect that aging is having on them. They may be unable to articulate what they are experiencing in ways that other people understand what they are experiencing. Consequently there is the potential for signs of aging to go unnoticed until they become more pronounced. Caregivers should consider how to inform and educate people with developmental disabilities about aging and the ways in which they may choose to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate older adulthood. Caregivers must also educate themselves about aging issues so they are prepared to monitor and to intervene with age-related needs. Finally, caregivers who know the person well should be sure to educate others in the support circle and caregivers in new services which the person may access, about the communication style of the individual and some of the key messages that they generally communicate to others.


The aging of persons with a developmental disability may occur at a younger age than the general population and be affected by factors related to their specific disability. It is important that caregivers pay attention to the indicators of aging such as changes in social roles, activity level, interests, behaviour patterns, response to things in the environment and health conditions. More information about specific developmental disabilities and their potential effects on aging can be obtained from your physician, local library and Internet sites.

Checklist on Aging

Have you noticed any changes in the person over the past year?

  • YES
  • NO

If YES, what kinds of changes?

  • Activity level
  • Social roles
  • Interests
  • Tendency to be more withdrawn
  • Emotional changes
  • Behaviour
  • Response to things in the environment
  • Communication level
  • Eating Habits
  • Sleeping patterns
  • Health (See Health article for more detail)

Sourced from “Transition Guide For Caregivers”, The Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities

Leave a Reply