Home About AllHealth Website Sitemap Contact Us
All Health 
You are here: Home > Old Medical Ref > Old Disease Finder > mental retardation


mental retardation

Alternative Names
developmentally delayed, retarded, mentally handicapped, mentally disabled, slow

Mental retardation is defined by three criteria. The person has a score of 70 or less on intelligence tests, or IQ tests. The person has limitations in at least two aspects of living skills. Mental retardation is present from birth or infancy. Examples of living skills are:
  • education (reading, writing, basic maths)
  • motor function
  • social skills
  • communication
  • personal care (bathing, dressing, eating, toileting)
  • thinking skills (judgment, problem-solving, self-direction)
  • working
What is going on in the body?
An affected person has reduced intellectual function. There has been damage to the brain, or the brain did not develop normally before the person was born.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Indications of mental retardation include:
  • delayed developmental milestones. This means that the child learns skills such as walking and talking later than other children.
  • late development of speech and language.
  • poor co-ordination of movements, such as walking or using the fingers to handle small objects.
  • poor school performance.
  • social and emotional immaturity.
  • possible seizures when there are certain neurological disorders, or abnormalities within the brain.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Causes of mental retardation include:
  • low birth weight.
  • genetic defects.
  • foetal alcohol syndrome.
  • poor nutrition and healthcare for the mother during pregnancy.
  • lack of oxygen during the birth process.
  • birth trauma.
  • exposure to certain toxic materials or medications during pregnancy.
  • exposure to certain illnesses, such as rubella or German measles, during the first trimester of pregnancy.
  • neurological disorders.
  • physical injury as a result of seizures.
  • smoking during pregnancy.
  • childhood diseases that may lead to infections or chemical imbalances that damage the brain.
  • malnutrition in early childhood.
  • childhood exposure to environmental toxins such as lead or mercury.
  • being deprived of normal stimulation and interaction with people.
Children who have mental retardation may be at risk for other health problems. Depending on what caused the mental retardation, the child may also have seizures or may have a heart condition.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
Mental retardation can sometimes be prevented by proper antenatal care. A woman should not smoke, drink, or use drugs while pregnant. She should also talk to her doctor before taking any medications. Pregnant women should exercise, eat a healthy diet, get regular checkups, and have genetic testing if it's advised. Children should be protected from hazards like lead, and they should get prompt medical care when ill. Children need to have stimulating contact with other children and adults to help them develop mentally.

How is the condition diagnosed?
Mental retardation is diagnosed with a physical examination and psychological and intelligence tests.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
The long-term effects of the condition depend on the degree of retardation. They may include:
  • a need for lifelong sheltered living and work environments
  • a need for assistance with basic activities of daily living, such as dressing, feeding, and toileting
  • significant, lifelong health problems
  • poor decision-making ability
  • a need for help with financial decisions and management
  • emotional and social immaturity
What are the risks to others?
The family of an affected person needs to make long-term plans for the person's care.

What are the treatments for the condition?
Treatments for mental retardation include:
  • early identification of the condition.
  • enrollment in special education programs.
  • medication when needed, as in the case of seizure disorders.
  • medical treatment for other conditions, such as hydrocephalus, which is fluid in the brain cavities.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Medications can have side effects. Surgery, if needed, can also carry risks.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
A mentally retarded person can receive special education services until the age of 21. Vocational services are available in sheltered workshop settings. Families must 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's condition is monitored with periodic physical checkups. Parents can participate in Individual Educational Plan meetings at school.

Author: Ann Reyes, Ph.D.
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


Back Email a Friend View Printable Version Bookmark This Page


eknowhow | The World's Best Websites
    Privacy Policy and Disclaimer