ADHD diagnoses on the rise

Anne Hobson | Contributor

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that 11 percent of American school-age children have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), prompting concerns among doctors that the condition is being over-diagnosed, The New York Times reports.

ADHD means that abnormal chemical levels in the brain impair a person’s ability to control impulses and focus. It is considered a chronic condition that continues into adulthood.

Overall, 6.4 million young Americans between the ages of 4 and 17 have received an ADHD diagnosis in their lifetime. This marks a 16 percent increase since 2007, and a 53 percent increase in the last decade.

Two-thirds of diagnosed children have prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta and Vyvanse. These stimulants can aid in concentration; however, they can also lead to addiction, anxiety and psychosis.

Sales of these stimulants have more than doubled to $9 billion in 2012 — up from $4 billion in 2007, according to IMS Health.

“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,” said Doctor William Gaf, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

Because the American Psychiatric Association intends to broaden the definition of ADHD, it is likely that even more Americans will receive diagnoses. The test for the disorder is completely subjective. The diagnosis is determined after speaking with patients, parents and teachers about the child’s behavior, and ruling out other causes.

Some doctors say the new rates imply that millions of children are taking the medication to enhance their performance in school. Universities are often settings for the illegal sharing and selling of drugs like Adderall. An ADHD diagnosis has become synonymous with a shortcut to better grades, according to some experts.

According to data compiled by the New York Times from a CDC study, nearly one in five school-age boys have received an ADHD diagnosis, compared to one in fourteen girls. About one in 10 high-school boys takes ADHD medication.

Taxpayers bear the burden for children covered by Medicaid, who receive ADHD diagnoses at a rate one-third higher than the rest of the population, according to CDC data.

Proposed changes to the wording in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders include expanding the timeframe in which symptoms must appear to age 12 rather than 7, adding example behaviors such as repeatedly losing one’s cellphone and requiring that symptoms “impact” rather than “impair” daily functioning.

Ned Hallowell, a child psychiatrist and author of books on the disorder, called the use of ADHD drugs as “mental steroids” dangerous.

“I think now’s the time to call attention to the dangers that can be associated with making the diagnosis in a slipshod fashion,” he said.

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