NHS not lifestyle to blame for shorter lifespan amongst people with a learning disability

Article By: Richard Howard, News Editor

A three-year study undertaken by the University of Bristol has found that adults with a learning disability are more likely to have a premature death than those without, due to their needs not being as effectively identified, diagnosed and treated.

The research, funded by the Department of Health, found that men with learning disabilities die, on average, 13 years sooner than men in the rest of the population, while women with learning disabilities die 20 years sooner. Plus, when compared with death rates that show 9 per cent of the general population die before they reach 50, the figure for people with learning disabilities stands at 22 per cent.

Lead author of the study Dr Pauline Heslop believes that firm action is needed within the healthcare sector to ensure that any barriers to effective diagnosis are overcome. She comments:

“This report highlights the unacceptable situation in which people with learning disabilities are dying, on average, more than 16 years sooner than anyone else. The cause of their premature death is not, like many in the general population, due to lifestyle-related illnesses. The cause of their premature deaths appears to be because the NHS is not being provided equitably to everyone based on need. People with learning disabilities are struggling to have their illnesses investigated, diagnosed and treated to the same extent as other people. These are shocking findings and must serve as a wake-up call to all of us that action is urgently required.

“We have, over the past few years, been rightly horrified by the abuse of people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View hospital and of vulnerable patients at Mid-Staffordshire. The findings of the confidential inquiry into the deaths of people with learning disabilities should be of no less a concern.”

Exploring the role of carers, the study found examples of professionals and families finding it more difficult to be taken seriously when enquiring about health-related issues of an individual with a learning disability, while also finding examples of social care itself that could be improved.

Key recommendations that researchers hope will inform future development include: the allocation of health professionals to coordinate the care of individuals with multiple health conditions; proactive future planning to reduce the need for more responsive services; clearer adherence to the Mental Capacity Act; better data collection regarding the causes of death; and the establishment of a National Learning Disability Mortality Review Body.


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