When Georgie Wildgust was born with Down syndrome in 1942, his mom was told that he wouldn't see his 10th birthday.
But Wildgust proved doctors wrong.
Last month, the retired gardener, who lives in Nottingham, England, turned 77. He is believed to be the oldest person in Britain diagnosed with the chromosomal disorder.
“It’s probably because he had such a lovely childhood,” Wildgust’s niece Nikki Wright, 44, told British news agency SWNS. Wright said that Wildgust grew up being told “that he can do anything.”
Wright noted that back then, many children with Down syndrome were sent to live in institutions.
As a little boy, Wildgust played with typical kids in his neighborhood. “Nobody picked on him; they all took him under their wing and looked after him,” Wright revealed. “It was one big happy community who looked out for each other. So he’s always been very sociable.”
Today, Wildgust lives in a group home, with 12 other residents, where he enjoys dancing, coloring and eating ice cream.
“He’s got a girlfriend, Lorraine, but she just moved out and I think he misses her a bit,” Wright said. “But she still comes to visit him and they chat on Skype as well.”
The life expectancy for those with Down syndrome has risen dramatically in recent decades: The mean in 1950 was 22 years; in 2010, it was 50. Today, it's approaching 60, according to Dr. Brian Skotko, a medical geneticist and the Emma Campbell Endowed Chair on Down Syndrome at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Kandi Pickard, president and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society, credits that increase to early intervention.
“Physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy are making a tremendous difference,” Pickard told TODAY Health.
Medical advances have also extended the average life expectancy.
Approximately 50% of all babies with Down syndrome are born with a congenital heart defect, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Children with Down syndrome are also at higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea and thyroid disease. But these conditions can often be corrected.
"People with Down syndrome are living longer than they've ever lived before and that's largely due to advances in medical and surgical care," Skotko told TODAY Health. "There are a lot of co-occurring conditions that go along with Down syndrome, and we now know how to detect and sometimes prevent those consequences from getting in the way."
A Minnesota man named Bert Holbrook, who was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest person with Down syndrome, died at age 83 in 2012.