Risk factors for Down syndrome

Arch Toxicol. 2016 Dec;90(12):2917-2929. doi: 10.1007/s00204-016-1843-3. Epub 2016 Sep 7.


Down syndrome (DS) originates, in most of the cases (95 %), from a full trisomy of chromosome 21. The remaining cases are due to either mosaicism for chromosome 21 or the inheritance of a structural rearrangement leading to partial trisomy of the majority of its content. Full trisomy 21 and mosaicism are not inherited, but originate from errors in cell divisions during the development of the egg, sperm or embryo. In addition, full trisomy for chromosome 21 should be further divided into cases of maternal origin, the majority, and cases of paternal origin, less than 10 %. Among cases of maternal origin, a further stratification should be performed into errors that have occurred or originated during the first meiotic division in the maternal grandmother's body and errors that occurred later in life during the second maternal meiotic division. This complex scenario suggests that our understanding of the risk factors for trisomy 21 should take into account the above stratification as it reflects different individuals and generations in which the first error has occurred. Unfortunately, most of the available literature is focused on maternal risk factors, and the only certain risk factors for the birth of a child with DS are advanced maternal age at conception and recombination errors, even though the molecular mechanisms leading to chromosome 21 nondisjunction are still a matter of debate. This article critically reviews the hypotheses and the risk factors which have been suggested to contribute to the birth of a child with DS, including folate metabolism, dietary, lifestyle, environmental, occupational, genetic and epigenetic factors, with focus on maternal and paternal risk factors, and taking into account the possible contribution of the maternal grandmother and that of the developing trisomic embryo, in a complex scenario depicting the birth of a child with DS as the result of complex gene-environment interactions and selection processes involving different generations.

Keywords: Age; Down syndrome; Epigenetics; Father; Folate; Grandmother; Mother; Recombination; Risk factors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Diet, Healthy*
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Down Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Down Syndrome / etiology
  • Down Syndrome / genetics
  • Down Syndrome / prevention & control*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure / prevention & control
  • Environmental Pollution / adverse effects
  • Environmental Pollution / prevention & control*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Family Health*
  • Female
  • Folic Acid / therapeutic use
  • Healthy Lifestyle*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal Age
  • Models, Biological*
  • Mutagens / toxicity
  • Recombination, Genetic
  • Risk Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Mutagens
  • Folic Acid