1 in 5 Boys Now Diagnosed With ADHD -- Are We Overdrugging Our Kids?

The number of children and teenagers diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has increased remarkably over the past decade, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rise in numbers, reported on by the New York Times, has led some to say that the increase is due to parent pressure on doctors and a loose definition of the disorder.

The data reveals that an estimated 6.4 million children aged 4 to 17 have received the diagnosis, which is a 16 percent increase from 2007. The 6.4 million children diagnosed is also a 53 percent rise over the last decade. Two-thirds of those diagnosed take stimulant medication for the disorder like Ritalin and Adderall, which could lead to anxiety, addiction and potentially psychosis. Nearly one in five high school boys and 11 percent of all school-age children have ADHD, the new data states.

William Graf, a pediatric neurologist from Yale University, told the New York Times that the rise in those with the disorder was “astronomical...Mild symptoms are being diagnosed so readily, which goes well beyond the disorder and beyond the zone of ambiguity to pure enhancement of children who are otherwise healthy.”

There are some doctors and advocates for patients who welcome the rise in numbers, and say that it is a result of the disorder being recognized better. But others who are critics of how children receive the diagnosis say that “the new rates suggest that millions of children may be taking medication merely to calm behavior or to do better in school,” according to the New York Times. The resort to medication for those who do not need it is particularly dangerous, as the drugs are rife with risks.

“There’s a tremendous push where if the kid’s behavior is thought to be quote-unquote abnormal — if they’re not sitting quietly at their desk — that’s pathological, instead of just childhood,” said one Harvard professor of medicine.

Some of the pressure on doctors from parents who are worried about their children’s behavior may be a result of effective advertising from prescription drug companies. The Times notes that “several doctors mentioned that advertising from the pharmaceutical industry that played off parents’ fears — showing children struggling in school or left without friends — encouraged parents and doctors to call even minor symptoms A.D.H.D. and try stimulant treatment.” The drug companies are reaping the boom in diagnoses, with their profits increasing by $5 billion since 2007. And taxpayers are bearing the cost of these drugs and doctors’ visits for those covered by Medicaid.

“There’s no way that one in five high-school boys has A.D.H.D,” James Swanson, an expert on ADHD, told the New York Times. “If we start treating children who do not have the disorder with stimulants, a certain percentage are going to have problems that are predictable — some of them are going to end up with abuse and dependence. And with all those pills around, how much of that actually goes to friends? Some studies have said it’s about 30 percent.”

But while alarms from Swanson and others are ringing, the numbers of those with ADHD are likely to continue to increase.

The American Psychiatric Association is poised to change the definition of the disorder to allow more people to be diagnosed with it. New criteria set to be released next month could lead to higher diagnosis rates because of the requirement that symptoms appear before age 12 rather than 7. Additionally, the new American Psychiatric Association language will state that symptoms that “impact” daily activities--rather than “impair”--are a sign of the disorder.


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