October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month

By Kishore Vellody, Medical Director, Down Syndrome Center of Western Pennsylvania, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC

Vellody_Kishore_MD_Diagnostic_RIn 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a resolution declaring October as National Down Syndrome Awareness month.  Thirty years later, we continue to celebrate the lives of people with Down syndrome every October and bring awareness to what people with Down syndrome can do when given the right support and resources.   We also remember and bring awareness to the tremendous impact that people with Down syndrome have on their families and friends.

There are an estimated 350,000 people with Down syndrome living in the United States today.  However, most people are not aware of some very interesting facts about Down syndrome.  Most medical textbooks and websites tend to focus on the potential medical complications that people with Down syndrome may face.  However, I think a blog on Down Syndrome Awareness month is a great place to talk about a few of the many positive aspects of Down syndrome that are not frequently discussed.  Let me share some examples of what I mean:

  • We have found that people with Down syndrome do not seem to get solid organ tumors. We just don’t seem to see people with Down syndrome get diagnosed with lung or colon cancer, for example, yet these are among the most common cancers in the general population.
  • People with Down syndrome don’t seem to get atherosclerotic disease in their hearts. These are the cholesterol related plaques that build up in so many other people’s hearts and cause heart attacks.
  • There is a very low incidence of high blood pressure (or hypertension) in people with Down syndrome.
  • The response to the treatment of certain conditions, including certain types of leukemia, are actually better in children with Down syndrome than in the general population.
  • Children with Down syndrome recover from certain types of pediatric heart surgeries better than other children.

These are only just a few of the medical benefits that occur in Down syndrome.   There are many more.  As people with Down syndrome are now living longer and healthier lives than ever before, I’m sure there will be even more things that will be discovered.  Since it is known that people with Down syndrome differ from us by only one extra 21st chromosome, scientists are eagerly investigating where these health benefits lie on that chromosome so that we could potentially improve the health of so many other people.

While the medical advantages of Down syndrome are interesting, anybody who has ever11 interacted with someone with Down syndrome knows that there is so much more to be learned from them!  After spending time with someone with Down syndrome, you rarely walk away the same person!  Many people with Down syndrome just seem to have a way of making others feel special and important.  My brother, Das, has Down syndrome, and we have always been as close as two brothers can be.  No matter how I’m feeling, a quick call or visit with him will turn around even my hardest days.  He can effortlessly cheer up other people and help them to look at the bright side of things.

With each passing Down Syndrome Awareness month, I find myself becoming much more aware of the impact that my brother has had on my life.  He was born in 1975 at a time where people with Down syndrome were not given much of a chance.   There was no month to celebrate Down syndrome awareness.  There were minimal educational or employment opportunities for people with Down syndrome.  Medical healthcare guidelines didn’t even exist yet for Down syndrome.

However, my parents were determined to raise my brother in a loving home, and their decision changed my life forever.  Das is the most loving, forgiving, and compassionate person I have ever known.  I owe him so much more than he could ever comprehend.  My career choice as a physician stems from every time I saw him selflessly help others while we grew up.  My decision to become a pediatrician and, eventually, to direct the Down Syndrome Center of Western Pennsylvania, comes from a desire to give back indirectly to my brother who has given me so much.  So, Das, this October, I’m going to remember each day how much you mean to me.  I love you, bro!

For more information about the Down Syndrome Center of Western Pennsylvania, please visit http://www.chp.edu/CHP/downsyndrome. You can also download our audio podcasts on iTunes. Visit http://www.chp.edu/CHP/down+syndrome+podcasts to learn more.

  • Jeff Kulbago

    Awesome Dr. Vellody! Thanks