More and more children are getting a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The percentage of children with the condition rose from 7% in 1998-2000 to 9% in 2007-2009, for both boys and girls. In some areas of the United States those figures are even higher. From 1998 to 2009, ADHD prevalence increased 10% in the Midwest and South.
That’s not necessarily bad news; it could mean that with greater awareness of the condition and better access to health care, more children who have ADHD get a proper diagnosis, which is the first step toward seeking appropriate treatment. Medications and behavior therapies are available to help kids with attention issues. But the report did not directly measure whether the rise in ADHD cases reflected better detection or an actual increase in the number of children with the condition.
On the flip side, past research has found indications of frequent misdiagnosis of ADHD. Some parents say the first suggestion that their child might have ADHD came from educators rather than mental health professionals. That could lead to misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment; ADHD is a specific condition involving lack of focus and impulsive behavior, but there could be other reasons for similar symptoms.
The CDC report looked at children 5 to 17 years old. It did not look at causes of ADHD, which remain somewhat mysterious; no one knows how to prevent ADHD or predict who will develop it.
Researchers highlighted disparities among ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Among children in families with an income under the poverty line, ADHD prevalence increased to 10.3%, and for those just above the poverty level it rose to about 11%.
ADHD prevalence is about the same across the ethnic groups that the report focused on, with the exception of Mexican children, who have consistently had lower prevalence of ADHD since 1998. Again, it’s unclear whether that means this reflects a need for greater awareness and access to health care, or if children in this group are truly less likely to have the condition.
Whatever the underlying reasons for the condition’s rise, a tremendous amount of money is being spent on health care and educational interventions directed at ADHD, not to mention other costs to parents. In 2005, using an estimated prevalence of only 5%, researchers estimated the societal cost of this mental illness to be about $42.5 billion.