Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities

Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have varying levels of ability. Some people manage independently with support when needed, while others need complete care. But what many have in common is that they may have difficulty obtaining good quality healthcare.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) affect functioning in two areas:

  • Intellectual functioning, which involves learning and problem-solving
  • Adaptive functioning, which includes communication and performing personal and living tasks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 6.5 million people in the United States have an IDD.

An IDD itself doesn’t cause illness, but it can lead to situations that put people at higher risk of developing certain conditions, including infections, which can lead to sepsis.

Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection or injury. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment. Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumoniainfluenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs that don’t work properly), and/or amputations.

Health Risks for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

People with an IDD frequently have overall poorer health and a more challenging time getting adequate healthcare. Their life expectancy is also lower than adults without an intellectual disability, although it is rising. For example, in 1960, people with Down syndrome rarely lived beyond childhood, with an average life span of around 10 years. By 2007, the life expectancy was at 47.

People with an IDD can be at increased risk for developing:

  • Cancer, especially leukemia, particularly among those with Down syndrome, and gastrointestinal (gut) cancers
  • Heart disease, sometimes because they have congenital heart conditions (they were born with them)
  • Respiratory disease

In addition to being at risk for certain conditions, people with an IDD, especially those who cannot communicate, may be unable to tell their caregivers if they have pain or aren’t feeling well. They might not be able say that their ear or tooth hurts, or it hurts when they urinate or cough – all possible signs of an infection. They may be unable to explain that their skin is so itchy that they can’t stop scratching, which can break the skin. A change in mental status (confusion or sleepiness) may not be obvious at first – a possible sign of sepsis. So, when they do become ill enough that someone notices it, the illness may have progressed to the point that it’s harder to treat.

In cases of sepsis, where every hour counts, valuable time may be lost. According to a study in Australia: “…circulatory system deaths and infections were the two leading causes of potentially avoidable deaths, followed by cancer [in individuals with an IDD].”

Lower Rates of Health Screening

Regular check-ups are part of a preventative healthcare plan, but getting some adults with an IDD to a doctor may not be easy. First, caregivers must find a physician comfortable working with adults with IDDs and whose office can accommodate any special needs. Once the patient does attend an appointment, depending on the severity of the IDD, it may be difficult for the healthcare staff to perform routine or follow-up tests.

A good example of how this affects people with an IDD is the increased cancer rate, likely because of the reduced cancer screening. For instance, colon cancer screening is less frequent in this population and women with an IDD tend to have fewer screening mammograms for breast cancer or Pap tests to detect cervical cancer.

Poor dental health is also a possible health issue. Higher rates of dental cavities and fewer visits to the dentist can contribute to infections, which can lead to sepsis. Over a third of adults with IDD have unhealthy teeth and gums.

Improving Healthcare for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Communication is the key to getting good healthcare for anyone, especially for people living with an IDD. Ideally, the person who is at risk or is ill would communicate with the staff. Often though, it is the caregiver who must take on that role.

Here are some tips if you are advocating for someone with an IDD:

  • Check with the office if you can have a longer than usual appointment. This would allow for the extra time it may take for the examination and questions.
  • Ask for consistency by having the same doctors and other professionals for each visit.
  • Keep a health journal that lists the patient’s medical history, medications, treatments, and any other information you think is essential. Bring this journal with you to all appointments.
  • If possible, bring any medications to the appointment, especially if it is a new healthcare professional. If you can’t bring the medications, bring a pharmacy printout.
  • Encourage the healthcare team to address the patient directly instead of you, even if the patient doesn’t seem to respond.
  • If the affected person can communicate, allow them to, giving them the opportunity to share their feelings and concerns.
  • Ask the healthcare team if they have simplified or visual information pamphlets.

Not all infections cause sepsis, but when sepsis does occur, it can quickly progress to septic shock if not treated. Remember when it comes to sepsis, it’s about TIME™.


Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.


Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Intellectual and Developmental Disability. 2022.


 Posted July 7, 2022.



Guide for Sepsis and IDD Materials
Sepsis and IDD Visual Guide for Adults
Sepsis and IDD Text Guide for Adults

Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities

Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have varying levels of ability. Some people manage independently with support when needed, while others need complete care. But what many have in common is that they may have difficulty obtaining good quality healthcare.