Down’s pregnancies rise as women delay having children

But this is matched by a surge in terminations

The number of Down’s syndrome pregnancies has risen sharply over the past 20 years, largely because of an increase in older women trying to have children, research suggests.

A study of Down’s syndrome trends by scientists from Queen Mary, University of London, shows that antenatal and postnatal diagnoses have increased by 71 per cent, from 1,075 in 1989 to 1,843 last year.

But the number of babies born with Down’s has remained fairly static over the same period. Live births of Down’s babies fell by about 1 per cent, from 752 to 743, over the same period.

If screening had not taken place, the number of babies born with Down’s syndrome would have risen 48 per cent, the researchers concluded.

Down’s syndrome
occurs when a baby inherits an extra chromosome, creating a genetic imbalance that affects an individual’s physical and mental characteristics. It is estimated that there are about 60,000 people with Down’s syndrome in Britain.

Joan Morris, Professor of Medical Statistics at Queen Mary, University of London, who led the study, said that the steep rise in pregnancies was being offset by improvements in screening. ‘It was thought that these improvements would lead to a decrease in the number of births with Down’s syndrome. However, due to increases in maternal age, this has not occurred,’ she said.

She added that because older women have a far greater chance of having a baby with Down’s – the risk for a 40-year-old mother is 16 times that for a 25-year-old mother – more research was needed to find out why about 30 per cent of older women decide not to be tested.

Testing for Down’s syndrome takes place before the 14th week of pregnancy. The common ‘triple’ test estimates the risk by looking at the baby’s spinal cord, the results of a blood test for chemicals in the mother’s blood and the mother’s age. Further tests can be carried out if there is a high chance the baby has Down’s. These are invasive and can trigger a miscarriage.

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