ADHD rates increase in children, new study finds

Simone Wolberg

The Centers for Disease Control released a study on May 16 which found that diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are increasing at an alarming rate.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 6.4 million U.S. children were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in 2011-2012, a 42 percent increase in diagnoses from 2003.  Of those children, 3.5 million were taking medication for ADHD.

While there is a dramatic statistical increase in ADHD diagnoses, Merriam Saunders, psychotherapist and Redwood parent, is unsure about the new CDC data.  “I think we are living in a society where there are a lot more pressures being put on children and higher expectations of children to sit for longer periods of time, so parents are probably looking for quick fixes,” Saunders said.

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There are many different hypotheses on why ADHD diagnoses are increasing. In their new book ADHD Explosion, U.C. Berkeley professors Stephen Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler hypothesize that this increase in diagnoses may be due to increased competition in the education system. The authors found that the states which have implemented standardized testing in earlier grades have had a greater increase in ADHD diagnoses than the states which have this testing in later grades only.

These societal pressures for children to have a “competitive edge” lead to a larger increase of ADHD diagnoses and misuse of ADHD medication, according to Linda Pfiffner, Director of the Hyperactivity Attention and Learning Problems Clinic at UCSF.

“There are a lot more diagnoses being made than in years past, which is very concerning.  Certainly there is more awareness of ADHD in the past 10 years, there is more media attention, and there is more direct advertising to parents for medicating children,” Pfiffner said.

Saunders said she believes that while ADHD itself is being over-diagnosed, at least in her practice, medication is not the first resort.

“There are a lot of other learning disabilities, auditory-processing, and organic reasons like sleep concerns which could also mimic ADHD symptoms,” Saunders said.  “So it is really important to cross all of those other things out before putting a child on stimulant medication.  Medicating really young children is not my first preference–I would be very reluctant to give young children medication when the severity of their ADHD is hard to determine.”

For children who have already been diagnosed with ADHD, Pfiffner and Saunders both believe that behavioral-based treatment is a safer option than medication.

Another factor which disfavors the use of prescription drugs is the growing reported abuse of ADHD drugs such as Adderall.  Adderall’s main purpose is to improve focus in those with ADHD. In recent years, however, teens without ADHD have been abusing Adderall thinking it would improve their test-taking abilities.  According to the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future Study, abuse of Adderall in eighth, 10th and 12th graders in the U.S. has increased from 5.4 percent in 2009 to 7.4 percent in 2013.

 Even with abuse rates increasing, however, some medical professionals believe that ADHD medication helps ease symptoms such as aggression and lack of focus more so than behavioral treatments.