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Transitions in Aging

Aging with Developmental Disabilities

Factors for Secondary Conditions

  • Healthcare access challenges
      - Lack of information
      - Transportation challenges
      - Predetermined ideas from healthcare providers
      - Insurance
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Poor diets
  • Tobacco use
  • Environmental issues
  • Prolonged use of medication
  • Limited family health history

NEXT: Associated Conditions: Down Syndrome

Notes and References

There are several factors contributing to the development of the aforementioned secondary conditions in individuals with developmental disabilities. People aging with a developmental disability today were born between the 1940s and the 1960s; a time when we were still fighting for rights to community participation and equal opportunities for education and employment for individuals with disabilities.

Research has suggested that during these years, less than 20% of individuals with developmental disabilities received a proper education and were able to maintain some form of employment.1 Because of social prejudice and limited education and employment opportunities, more people with developmental disabilities lived below the poverty line and had limited access to healthcare.2 Individuals with developmental disabilities may also be lacking knowledge and education about their own healthcare needs and options, which then makes them rely on others for healthcare decisions. Many individuals with developmental disabilities have also reported negative experiences with their physicians and healthcare professionals. They shared that their physicians do not take time to understand their health complaints and may be biased against them due to misconceptions about people with disabilities. A suggestion is to educate fellow healthcare professionals on how to work with people with disabilities.10 Due to a lack of information and other environmental barriers, such as inaccessible environments, this population is less likely to use any preventive care services, including dental care which, in turn, increases their risks of developing oral hygiene problems and cardiovascular diseases.3

Second, it was found that a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition may contribute a higher prevalence of being overweight or obese as well as other chronic health conditions among people with developmental disabilities. Several studies have reported that people with disabilities are more likely to choose sedentary leisure activities, such as watching television, rather than participating in physical activities.4 Some environmental barriers contributing to sedentary lifestyle for this population are: limited access to fitness facilities and community sport/recreation programs, inaccessible fitness equipment, and lack of support from professional staff.5 Some individuals with disabilities also report that they find it difficult to balance their activity level and exercise tolerance. Fatigue and pain are also cited as reasons for leading sedentary lives.6 Nutritional issues have also been found to be associated with increased risk of obesity in individuals with developmental disabilities. For example, some children with autism are very selective with their food choices and children born with Down syndrome and Prader-Willi, have a tendency for overeating.7 These unhealthy eating habits can increase their likelihood of becoming obese.8

Next, smoking and tobacco use are common health risk factors for hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases. While individuals with developmental disabilities show a rate of tobacco use comparable to that of the general population, they are more affected by the financial expense of tobacco use. In addition, the use of tobacco may affect the effectiveness of medications they may take.9 Finally, people with developmental disabilities also experience prolonged use of medications and have limited understanding of their family health history, which can further complicate their healthcare decision making. The early diagnosis and treatment of unhealthy lifestyles and health complications is needed to prevent secondary conditions and chronic diseases for adults with developmental disability.10


  1. Hirst, S. (2012). Aging with a developmental disability: A health perspective. In D. Cook (Ed.), Supports and services for older adults with developmental disabilities study: Supplementary reports (pp. 14-41). Calgary: Seniors and Community Supports. Retrieved from
  2. Strax, T. E., Luciano, L., Dunn, A. M., & Quevedo, J. P. (2010). Aging and developmental disability. Physical medicine and rehabilitation clinics of North America, 21(2), 419-427.
  3. Lewis, M. A., Lewis, C. E., Leake, B., King, B. H., & Lindemann, R. (2002). The quality of health care for adults with developmental disabilities. Public Health Reports, 117(2), 174-184.
  4. Giammattei, J., Blix, G., Marshak, H. H., Wollitzer, A. O., & Pettitt, D. J. (2003). Television watching and soft drink consumption: Associations with obesity in 11-to 13-year-old schoolchildren. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 157, 882-886.
  5. Emerson, E. (2005). Underweight, obesity and exercise among adults with intellectual disabilities in supported accommodation in Northern England. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 49(2), 134-143.
  6. Heath, G. W., & Fentem, P. H. (1997). Physical activity among persons with disabilities: A public health perspective. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 25, 195-234.
  7. Schreck, K.A., Williams, K., & Smith, A. F. (2004). A comparison of eating behaviors between children with and without autism. Journal of Autism andĀ Developmental Disorders, 34, 433-438.
  8. Luke, A., Sutton, M., Schoeller, D. A., & Roizen, N.J.M. (1996). Nutrient intake and obesity in prepubescent children with Down syndrome. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 96, 1262-1267.
  9. Haveman, M., Heller, T., Lee, L., Maaskant, M., Shooshtari, S., & Strydom, A. (2010). Major health risks in aging persons with intellectual disabilities: An overview of recent studies. Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 7 (1), 59-69.
  10. LaPlante, M.P. (2014) Key goals and indicators for successful aging of adults with early onset disability. Disability and Health Journal, 7(1), S44-S50.