Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Mental Retardation: What Caregivers Need to Know


Am Fam Physician. 2006 Jun 15;73(12):2184.

  See related article on mental retardation

What should I do about doctor visits for a person with mental retardation?

People with mental retardation should see their doctors and dentists regularly. You should ask each doctor how often the person you care for needs to visit and for what reasons. Be sure that someone who knows the patient and why he or she is seeing the doctor goes along at each visit. Before the visit, write down any questions you may have for the doctor.

Some people with mental retardation may be hard to manage or out of control. The doctor can help you make a plan to help with this behavior. The patient may need to take medicine to calm down before going to the doctor’s office. This should keep the patient and other people in the office safe.

If the doctor gives the person you care for a new treatment, you should keep a diary of how he or she does with the treatment. This will help the doctor know if the treatment is working.

What if a person with mental retardation is hurt or acts strangely?

Some people with mental retardation cannot tell you if they are sick or in pain. Acting differently may be the way they show pain or illness.

This is true in a lot of people with Down syndrome. Tell the doctor if you notice new signs of pain.

It is important to call the doctor if the person gets hurt, because people with mental retardation may have weak bones.

Who should make medical decisions for a person with mental retardation?

Adults with mental retardation may not be able to make decisions about their own health. They should have someone who is legally responsible for making these decisions for them. This person should be named in a legal document called a health care “durable power of attorney,” which allows the person to make health care decisions for the patient. This person is called a health care attorney-in-fact.

The attorney-in-fact should talk to the doctor about treatment decisions or end-of-life care for the patient. The doctor should write these decisions in the patient’s medical chart.

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2006 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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