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Study warns of early deaths in people with learning disabilities

two young women with learning disabilities with their arms around each other
two young women with learning disabilities with their arms around each other Image credit: diabetes.org.uk

A report has revealed children with a learning disability in Scotland are more likely to die prematurely.

The study, carried out by the Scottish Learning Disability Observatory (SLDO), concluded 34% of the deaths could have been preventable.

Angela Henderson, director of policy and impact at the SLDO, told BBC News: "People with learning disabilities experience higher rates of multi-morbidity than the general population, and die prematurely, often from causes that are either treatable or preventable.

"These include epilepsy, deaths from respiratory conditions and deaths related to gastro-intestinal problems."

She added: "These are all highly preventable and highly treatable."

There were also concerns of “diagnostic overshadowing” - where doctors diagnose symptoms presuming they relate to a patient’s learning disability opposed to a specific health problem.

Dr Laura Hughes-Mccormack, who led the study, said: "Efforts to reduce the health inequalities that lead to the unnecessary deaths of children and young people with learning disabilities must be prioritised.”

Earlier this year the Scottish government announced a £2m programme to fund health checks for people in Scotland aged over 16 living with a learning disability, in line with similar checks which had already been rolled out across the rest of the UK.

Scottish government’s social minister, Kevin Stewart, told BBC Scotland: "We had to get this right," but added he was "concerned about these health inequalities".

"We have done all of the work that's required in terms of the research and piloting of all of this, and we're in a position now to deliver right across Scotland for our learning disabled population."

He added: "This is the right thing to do, I think that this resourcing is absolutely what is required, and we hope that that will make a real difference to the health of our learning disabled population."

Kevin Lynch, who has a learning disability and is the director of People First Scotland, wants to ensure people with learning disabilities are assessed properly by the health system and given equal attention.

"I would welcome it as long as it's done in the right way, in an accessible way for people with learning disabilities," Lynch said.

"For me, I don't always seem to understand what the doctors say to me, even though I do ask them to speak in small, plain, simple words so that I can understand.

"They just keep talking in long words which we call jargon, and that's the same experience for other people with disabilities so they're often left confused."

He added: "I would like to see doctors and nurses taking time to get to know a person with learning disabilities over a long period of time rather than passed from one person to another."

The Scottish government said it would be providing support to healthcare staff to carry out the new checks.