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Divided Attention

Kids with ADHD can become adults with ADHD and other problems

By Nancy Maes

A new study by researchers at Mayo Clinic reveals that there is no cutoff age for attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and describes the risks of this neurodevelopmental condition when it persists into adulthood.

“In the past, we thought that ADHD was a childhood disease, but we conducted this study because it gradually became clear to the pediatricians and family practice doctors at Mayo Clinic that some proportion of children and adolescents with ADHD might carry the characteristics of the disease into adulthood,” explains Dr. Robert Colligan, psychology professor emeritus at Mayo Clinic who is one of the authors of the results of the study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

To verify this assumption, the researchers gathered information from a large group of children. It included 5,718 children born in Rochester, Minn., between 1976 and 1982, who still lived in Rochester at age 5 and whose families were willing to allow access to their youngsters’ medical records. Two hundred and thirty-two of them just under the age of 30, who had been diagnosed with ADHD as children, took part in a follow-up study. The results found that 29 percent of them had persistent symptoms of ADHD into adulthood, with no significant difference of symptoms between women and men.

The study found that 81 percent of the children who still had ADHD as adults had at least one other major psychiatric disorder. Colligan adds, “But it was really surprising to find that more than half of the adults who [no longer had ADHD] as adults still had serious mental health issues such as major depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, alcohol misuse and behavior problems.

“Some people who reviewed our paper thought we were stating the obvious, but we saw the kids identified with ADHD again as adults who were [then] almost 30 years old, so our project provides a stronger level of evidence than smaller studies that had gone before, [which] just focused on boys [who had been] referred to psychiatric treatment centers,” he says.

“This research is incredibly useful because it studies and quantifies a phenomenon that we have suspected for years,” says Dr. Benjamin Shain, head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

The research also found that three of those with identified ADHD had committed suicide, and ten were in prison before the study began. “I am not surprised that there is more suicide because the common wisdom is [that] other studies have shown that people with ADHD have a higher rate of depression. They are more impulsive, so I imagine that could also put them at greater risk,” says Shain.

“The clinical wisdom is also [that] other studies have shown [a] greater potential for conduct problems in children with ADHD; so it makes sense that those problems can lead to more sociopathic behavior as adults,” he says.

Colligan says that since most people are data oriented, he hopes that parents of children with ADHD and their teachers and caregivers will review the existing data, take into consideration the sobering findings of this new research and consider ADHD as a chronic disorder, with a constellation of risks that require quality, long-term treatment.

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