There are a number of problems and challenges in relating the science of epidemiology to mental retardation (MR). These relate to how MR is defined and classified and how these definitions may change over time. These as well as other differences in ascertainment sources and methods need to be considered when comparing MR prevalence over time and place. On the other hand, advances in technology also provide new and efficient methods of data collection both by data linkage and by use of web-based methods to study rare diseases.
While prevalence studies have not been individually reviewed, we have examined the range of data including recent studies relating to how prevalence differs according to age, gender, social class and ethnicity. Some problems with available etiological classification systems have been identified. Recent etiological studies, most of which use different classification systems, have been reviewed and explanations have been postulated to account for differences in results. Individual risk factors for MR are considered whilst the option of considering a population as opposed to a high risk strategy to MR prevention is raised. This might well involve improving the social milieu surrounding the occurrence of individual risk factors.
The impact of biotechnological advances such as antenatal and neonatal screening and assisted reproduction on MR are discussed. The issue of how inequalities in access to technology may impact on case identification and even have the potential to further widen inequalities is raised. The importance of extending the use of epidemiological tools to study the social, health and economic burden of MR is also emphasized. However, in order to apply to MR the “prevention-intervention-research” cycle, which surely underpins all epidemiology, it is vital to ensure that the methodological challenges we raise are adequately addressed. MRDD Research Reviews 2002;8:117–134. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.