Learning disability definition
A learning disability can be defined as a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people. A learning disability, not to be confused with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, is a term given to a group of conditions that are present before the age of 18 and can be categorised as mild, moderate, severe or profound (Mencap).
The level of support someone needs depends on the individual. For example, someone with a mild learning disability may only need support with things like getting a job. However, someone with a severe or profound learning disability may need fulltime care and support with every aspect of their life – they may also have physical disabilities.
People with certain specific conditions can have a learning disability too. For example, some people with autism or with Down’s syndrome have a learning disability.
Improving the lives of adults with learning disabilities has become a national priority as people with learning disabilities have worse health than the general population. Public Health England identifies the primary reasons for this are:
- There is an increased risk of specific health problems and/or personal health risks or health behaviours
- Greater exposure to social determinants of poorer health
- Barriers to healthcare provision e.g. access, communication difficulties including reduced health literacy
More information on learning disabilities is available in the resources section below.
Prevalence and population profile
There is a gap between the number of people who are estimated to have a learning disability and those who are registered with a GP. Approximately 1 person in 50 is estimated to have a learning disability, but only 1 in 4 people with a learning disability have been recorded as having a learning disability by a GP.
Evidence has shown key characteristics to be:
- More males have a learning disability than females
- A higher percentage of residents who have a learning disability live in Redbridge, Bevois and Coxford
- More shared homes for people with learning disability are in Shirley, Bitterne Park, Portswood and Bassett
- People with a learning disability is forecast to increase to approximately 5,110 people in 2023
Life expectancy and forecasts
Information from a range of sources consistently reports that people with learning disabilities in England die much younger than the general population (13 to 20 years younger for men with learning disabilities; 20 to 26 years younger for women with learning disabilities). As with the general population, the median age of death for people with learning disabilities is increasing. The faster improvement in male life expectancy is largely driven by changes seen in tobacco smoking and advances in health treatments for circulatory illnesses. (East Sussex Learning)
People with learning disabilities have poorer health and are more likely to die at a younger age than people in the general population. Life expectancy lowers as the severity of learning disability increases.
The main underlying cause of death includes:
- Respiratory (31%)
- Circulatory (16%)
- Cancer (10%)
Key health needs
People with learning disabilities have poorer health than the general population, much of which is avoidable. These health inequalities often start early in life and result, to an extent, from barriers they face in accessing timely, appropriate and effective health care. As well as having a poorer quality of life, people with learning disabilities die at a younger age than people without a learning disability.
People with a learning disability have significantly higher percentages of some health conditions compared to people without. These conditions with increased risk are:
- Under active thyroid
- Bipolar disorder
- Being overweight or obese
The type of conditions with higher diagnosed prevalence among people with a learning disability tend to be those that involve self-management. Higher prevalence occurs at an earlier age in a person's lifetime for people with a learning disability compared to those without.
Access to services
People with learning disabilities have poorer health and are more likely to die at a younger age than people in the general population, in part because of poor access to health services.
People with a learning disability have lower rates of breast and cervical cancer screening coverage compared to people without. Barriers to healthcare can be seen in the differences in national cancer screening coverage between people with a learning disability and without a learning disability as shown in the chart.
Anyone aged 14 or over recorded on a GP's learning disability register is eligible for a free annual learning disability health check. The healthcare professional doing the check talks about what services each person needs to be accessing. Some of the data (e.g. weight) in the compendium, profiling the health needs of people with a learning disability, comes from the data recorded in these health checks.
Learning disabilities tools
Learning Disability Needs Assessment (2019)
Learning Disability Needs Assessment June 2021 refresh
Learning Disability data compendium
PHE Fingertips - Learning Disability Profiles
Mencap - What is a learning disability?
NHS Digital - Health and care of people with learning disabilities - interactive dashboard
NHS England - Learning disabilities
HM Government - Valuing People Now A new three-year strategy for people with learning disabilities
PHE - Reasonable adjustments for people with a learning disability
PHE - Improving healthcare access for people with learning disabilities