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Is ADHD the Leading Childhood Disorder?

New research suggests that the identification and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not limited to the United States and Western Cultures. In fact, the use of psycho-stimulant drugs to treat ADHD has more than tripled worldwide since 1993.

While researchers from the University of California, Berkeley discovered the United States, Canada and Australia presented higher-than-expected rates of ADHD medication use between 1993 and 2003 – based on predictions from per-capita GDP indicators – a country-by-country analysis showed increases in ADHD drug consumption in countries ranging from France and Sweden, to Korea and Japan.

The study, published in the journal, Health Affairs, examined ADHD medication use among 5-19 year-olds in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose members are largely North American, European and Northeast Asian nations.

It makes a strong case for further studies on the long-term benefits of ADHD medications, as well as a global exchange of ADHD data to better determine effective monitoring and treatment of this disorder, according to its authors. An estimated one in 25 children and adolescents in the United States is taking medication for ADHD.

Overall, the study reflects global trends, said lead author, Richard Scheffler, a UC Berkeley distinguished professor of health economics and public policy and director of the Nicholas C. Petris Center on Health Care Markets and Consumer Welfare.

“Given the global diffusion of ADHD medications, as well as the prevalence of this condition, ADHD could become the leading childhood disorder treated with medications across the globe,” Scheffler said. “We can expect that the already burgeoning global costs for medication treatment for ADHD will rise even more sharply over the next decade.”

ADHD is characterized by poor concentration, distractibility, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and other symptoms that are age-inappropriate. If untreated, it can result in learning difficulties, volatile peer relationships and poor organizational skills.

Though the United States undeniably leads the world in ADHD medication spending ($2.4 billion in 2003), growth trends indicate that other countries are following in its tracks. For example, global spending on ADHD medications increased nine-fold among OECD countries during the time period studied. This increase is largely due to the advent and availability of more costly and long-acting medications such as Concerta(TM), Strattera(TM) and Adderral XR(TM), the study says.

“ADHD medication treatment globally is becoming similar to that seen in the United States,” said Dr. Peter Levine, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek and co-author of the study. “But the use of medications outside the United States is still primarily the less expensive short-acting stimulant medications. Costs are likely to rise globally as long-acting medications, which offer easier use and result in better compliance, become more prevalent outside the U.S.”

Using the IMS Health MIDAS(TM), an international pharmaceutical database, researchers looked at data from nearly 70 countries. They found that between 1993 and 2003, the number of countries using ADHD medications rose from 31 to 55, with the U.S. share of global market decreasing from 86.8 percent to 83.1 percent. Meanwhile, countries with traditionally low and moderate consumption of ADHD drugs were showing steady upswings.

The results temper some key criticisms of ADHD, said Stephen Hinshaw, chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of Psychology and co-author of the study.

“A common misconception is that ADHD only exists in the U.S. and that the pharmaceutical firms are getting bigger sales because of the ‘creation’ of the disorder in the U.S.,” said Hinshaw, who investigates ADHD in children and adolescents. “Yet cross-cultural research has shown that ADHD exists in nearly any culture that has compulsory education. Clearly, ADHD–which has a substantial genetic liability–is not just a figment of American doctors’ imaginations.”

Although stimulant medications such as methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine can be abused because of their ability to improve study skills and trigger euphoria, Hinshaw said the abuse is marginal in comparison to the valid therapeutic use of the drugs. Still, he cautions, careful diagnosis and careful monitoring of medications are essential. Behavioral treatments are also a viable alternative or complement to medication intervention.

The study recommends that countries compare data on use and spending to adjust overuse or under-use, and that they weigh carefully the potential benefits versus potential liabilities such as side effects and addiction.

Source: UC Berkeley

Is ADHD the Leading Childhood Disorder?

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Is ADHD the Leading Childhood Disorder?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 25, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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