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Large Study Shows Substance Abuse Rates Higher in Teens with ADHD

For some time now it had been hoped that kids who took their attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication were mitigating their risk for substance abuse. New studies, including one published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, indicate that young people with ADHD are at risk for substance abuse whether or not they are medication-compliant.

The study referred to in the journal was an eight-year examination of 600 kids beginning in childhood and continuing through the teenage years. Researchers looked at how ADHD medications affected kids, what sort of substance use patterns were evident and what relationship, if any, existed between ADHD medication and substance abuse.

The concerns about ADHD medications run in both directions. These medications work by triggering the release of dopamine in order to sharpen focus and attention, but dopamine is also a pleasure-inducing chemical associated with substance abuse. Not surprisingly, many parents worry over whether giving kids ADHD medications could lead to addiction.

Most experts say that parental concerns are unwarranted since the medications are designed to trigger a slow release of dopamine versus the sudden flood of dopamine which occurs with illegal drug use. The evidence seems to point away from kids abusing their ADHD medications.  While kids without ADHD are known to abuse the stimulants used to treat ADHD, those with the condition do not appear to abuse them.

On the other hand, taking the medications does not appear to erase the known link between having ADHD and an increased risk for substance abuse. The study found that:

  • 35 percent of 15 year olds with ADHD were using at least one substance compared to 20 percent of non-ADHD 15 year olds who used.
  • 10 percent of teens with ADHD also qualified for a substance abuse diagnosis versus three percent of teens with no ADHD. Substance abuse criteria demands that the use is creating significant problems in daily living.
  • At around age 17, marijuana was a significant problem for 13 percent of teens with ADHD compared to it being a real problem for seven percent of non-ADHD teens.
  • 17 percent of ADHD-affected teens smoked tobacco every day while just eight percent of teens without ADHD were daily cigarette smokers.
  • There was a high amount of alcohol use evident in both groups.
  • It did not matter whether teens with ADHD were taking or not taking their medication in terms of rates of substance abuse. Teens with ADHD were at an increased risk of substance abuse either way.

No one can say for sure why kids with ADHD are more at risk although there are plenty of ideas being floated around. Many experts believe that contributing factors likely include heightened impulsivity, troubles socializing and poor academic performance. The condition does tend to be hereditary, so genetic factors may be involved. In fact, ADHD and trouble with alcohol are problems that tend to pop up generation after generation in families, probably because the genes associated with them are shared by both conditions.

As many as one-quarter of all people in substance abuse treatment have ADHD. Statistics show that having ADHD means it is more likely that a child will start using substances at earlier ages.  Around 40 percent of kids with ADHD use alcohol before age 15. That compares to 22 percent of kids without ADHD who drink before age 15. Unfortunately, drinking early is also a leading indicator of later alcohol abuse once the person reaches adulthood. Similar linkage exists between teenage ADHD and marijuana use.

The end result is that teens living with ADHD are at risk for substance abuse, though they are not destined to abuse. Unfortunately, it does not seem to matter whether the young person takes their ADHD medication faithfully or not, the risk remains.

Posted on June 29th, 2013
Posted in Teens

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