Causes of Mental Retardation

Individuals affected by MR comprise between 1 percent and 3 percent of the population. Mental retardation can be acquired from any of the following categories: prenatal, perinatal (at the time of birth), postnatal, and economic status.

Prenatal, or before birth causes, can be broken down into genetics, disturbances in the embryonic development, and acquired causes. MR is associated with more than 500 genetic diseases. Examples of genetically inherited MR are too many chromosomes, too few, and a combination of defective genes and abnormal genes inherited from the parents. Disturbances in the embryonic development include multiple birth defects as well as specific syndromes. Acquired causes include infections during the pregnancy; the mother drinking, smoking, or taking other drugs, including some prescribed medications; and other maternal health issues. If the mother's health is in jeopardy, it in turn jeopardizes the unborn child's health. Drinking, smoking, drug usage, malnutrition, and contraction of HIV all affect the fetus.

All of these health hazards can cause damage such as low birthweight, mental retardation, and other neurological damage.

Perinatal causes of MR include premature birth (birth before thirty-six weeks gestation), low birth-weight, deprivation of oxygen to the fetus, and any undue stress put on the fetus at the time of birth.

Postnatal causes of MR include environment toxins and exposure to a childhood disease. There are vaccinations available to prevent the newborn from contracting damaging diseases. Whooping cough, measles, rubella, and mumps are all common childhood diseases for which the child can be immunized. Meningitis is another very serious disease that attacks the covering of the brain and spinal cord. This viral infection can cause permanent brain damage in infants. Any injury to the brain, including abuse or accident, can cause profound trauma to the developing brain. Toxins in the environment are also a cause of postnatal MR. One of the most important toxins is lead, the presence of which in paint has been a continuing issue. Symptoms of lead poisoning include lethargy, anemia, seizures, brain damage, and even death. Once lead poisoning is diagnosed, medications can assist with removing excess lead from the body. Even with medication, however, mental retardation may still be present.

The last category of causes of mental retardation is economic status. If a family lives in poor environmental conditions, the children in that family are at higher risk for disease, malnutrition, insufficient medical care, and understimulation, which can all lead to MR. Research has found that understimula-tion of the brain can cause irreversible damage to the brain and can lead to MR. Interacting with children is especially important in the first years of life to develop the neurons.

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