We don’t look after people with learning difficulties well enough, particularly as they experience more health conditions such as epilepsy and dental problems.
They’re also at a higher risk of leading sedentary lives and becoming overweight, putting them more at risk of diabetes, heart issues and respiratory disease. Plus they’re more likely to be exposed to poverty, poor housing conditions, unemployment and other social causes of poor health.
Swansea University wellbeing researchers have found that health checks do improve survival rates of people with a learning disability. Their conclusions come from analysing the medical records of 26,954 people in Wales with a learning disability between 2005 and 2017.
Annual health checks for people with a learning disability were introduced in Wales in 2006 to improve early detection and treatment. But without evidence about their long-term health benefits, many GPs didn’t use them.
So researchers from Swansea and Cardiff universities took the reins and explored whether they resulted in lower mortality rates. And what they found is convincing.
The headline result is that having a health check reduces deaths for people with autism and those with Down’s syndrome. But there was little evidence that these checks reduce death rates for those diagnosed with diabetes, epilepsy or cancer. Frustratingly, more than 70% of Welsh adults with learning disabilities had no record of having a health check.
Professor Sinead Brophy, lead researcher on the study, said: “The low uptake of health checks in Wales is concerning, especially as we come out of the pandemic. Adults with learning disabilities are not being offered health checks either because they are not recognised as eligible or because there is a barrier to accessing them.
“Communication and uptake of health promotion information can be challenging for people with learning disabilities. So reaching out to families and carers with clear messages on the benefits of checks could positively impact their uptake – leading to better health outcomes and quality of life for people with learning disabilities.”
Senior improvement manager, learning disability improvement Cymru, Paula Phillips, said: “We know health checks improve health outcomes, however, this is the first paper to identify improved survival for people with autism who have a learning disability and people with Down’s syndrome.”
There is now a drive to increase the uptake of these checks across Wales. Anyone aged over 14 with a learning disability should also be invited for an annual check in England. And now we know just how valuable they are.