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What is Mental Retardation? Print E-mail
Written by Amanda Wattson, MD   
Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Mental retardation is defined by three things. First, the person must have had the condition since childhood, or age 18 years or younger. Second, the person has a score of 70 or less on intelligence tests, or IQ tests. Third, the person has limitations in at least two aspects of living skills, such as:
- communication
- education, including reading, writing, and basic math
- motor function
- personal care, such as bathing, dressing, eating, and toileting
- social skills
- thinking skills, such as decision making, problem solving, and self-direction
- working

What is going on in the body?

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People with mental retardation have reduced intellectual function. Sometimes it is because the brain has not formed properly. Or the brain is damaged after the child is born.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Mental retardation can be caused by a many factors, both before and after the child is born. More than 500 genetic disorders can cause mental retardation. Three are listed here:
- Down syndrome
- fragile X syndrome
- phenylketonuria, or PKU

The following pregnancy-related problems in the mother can also cause mental retardation in the baby:
- alcohol, smoking, or drug use during pregnancy
- environmental toxins, such as lead and mercury
- infections, such as the TORCH infections or sexually transmitted diseases
- malnutrition

Birth-related stresses may cause brain injury and result in mental retardation. Premature birth and low birth weight are often associated with mental retardation. Birth trauma and lack of oxygen may cause brain damage.

Childhood infections, toxins, and accidents can also cause mental retardation. These include the following:
- chickenpox, measles, and whooping cough
- environmental toxins, such as lead and mercury
- head injury
- meningitis and encephalitis
- near drowning
- physical injuries from seizures

Factors related to poverty and cultural deprivation may also lead to mental retardation:
- environmental hazards
- lack of access to or inappropriate medical care
- lack of nurturing and appropriate stimulation
- living conditions that make exposure to diseases more likely
- poor nutrition in early childhood

What are the treatments for the condition?
Treatments for mental retardation may include:
- early identification of the condition
- enrollment in special education programs
- medication as needed, such as anticonvulsants for seizures
- occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy
- respite care as needed

What are the side effects of the treatments?


Most treatments for mental retardation are free from side effects. Medications may have specific side effects.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
Many people with mental retardation live happy, productive lives. They share loving relationships with friends and family and can make significant contributions to society. A mentally retarded person can receive special education services until the age of 21. Vocational services are available in sheltered workshop settings. Families are urged to do long-term planning for the time when the parents are no longer able to care for the person.

How is the condition monitored?
A person with mental retardation will have regular visits with the healthcare provider. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the provider.

 

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