Nearly one-third of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) continue to have the condition in adulthood, according to a new long-term study published online March 4 in Pediatrics.
The study also found that children with ADHD were more likely to develop other mental disorders in adulthood, such as anxiety or depression, with some committing suicide. Indeed, almost 60 percent of those participating in the study had been diagnosed with at least one other psychiatric disorder – a finding that authors of the study say confirms that ADHD is a chronic, lifetime disorder for many adults.
"We suffer from the misconception that ADHD is just an annoying childhood disorder that's overtreated," said study author Dr. William Barbaresi, associate chief of developmental medicine at Boston Children's Hospital in a written statement. "This couldn't be further from the truth."
Barbaresi led the study, which found that approximately 29 percent of participants diagnosed with ADHD as children ended up carrying that diagnosis over into their late twenties.
"They still clearly had symptoms that continued to be consistent with that diagnosis," said Barbaresi. "But that in itself has been an area of difficulty and controversy."
ADHD is the most common neurobehavioral disorder in children, affecting more than 5.4 million children between the ages of 4 and 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says such children tend to have a hard time paying attention, to be forgetful, fidget and be easily distracted to the point that it creates problems at school, home and with their friends.
For the study, researchers followed 5,718 children born between 1976 and 1982 in Rochester, Minn. Of those children, 387 were diagnosed with ADHD, and they all gave researchers access to their medical records.
The researchers then invited the 387 with ADHD to be re-evaluated when they were 29. Overall, 232 of them agreed to participate, and of those, researchers found that 68 still had ADHD, which is about 29 percent.
However, the participants whose ADHD did not persist into adulthood were still more likely to suffer from at least one other psychiatric condition, with at least 57 percent suffering from mental health problems like alcoholism, substance abuse, anxiety or depression – compared to 35 percent of those in a comparison group who did not have ADHD while growing up.
The participants diagnosed with ADHD as children were also more likely to commit suicide as adults, with researchers finding that 3 of the 387 participants with ADHD had committed suicide – compared to only seven of the 4,946 participants who did not have ADHD.
Dr. J. Russell Ramsay, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania's adult ADHD treatment and research program in Philadelphia, told USA Today that the study "is particularly telling because it used a community sample of children with ADHD followed to adulthood and not a clinical sample of individuals seeking treatment for their problems."
"It is chilling to see evidence, at least in this study, of the increased risk for death by suicide among children diagnosed with ADHD, with most of these tragic cases also having a history of substance abuse and at least one co-existing psychiatric diagnosis," said Ramsay, who was not involved in the research.
Meanwhile, authors of the study warn that their findings may not apply to all children in the U.S. because the participants in the study were mostly from white, middle-class families and were born in one part of Minnesota.