How Many Children Are Taking ADHD Medication?

ADHD medication use among children with other disorders is increasing

September 13, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

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(dailyRx News) ADHD medication prescriptions have become more and more common in the United States. Doctors are now using these medications to treat a variety of psychiatric disorders.

A recent study examined trends in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication prescriptions for children and adolescents diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other psychiatric disorders over the course of a decade.

The researchers found that there was a significant increase in the number of ADHD medication prescriptions in all three groups. The researchers concluded that there has been a clear, overall upward trend in the number of ADHD medications prescribed to children and adolescents with various psychiatric disorders.

This is the first population-based study to measure the prevalence of ADHD medication for ASD over a long period of time. The researchers see a need for further research, especially on the use of ADHD medication for treating childhood and adolescent ASD.

"Discuss medication options with your child's psychiatrist."

This study was conducted by Søren Dalsgaard, MD, PhD, from the National Centre for Register-based Research in the Department of Economics and Business at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark, and colleagues.

These researchers used the Danish Civil Registration System to identify all children and adolescents born in Denmark between 1990 and 2001, and then consulted the Danish Psychiatric Central Register or the Danish National Hospital register to identify children and adolescents who had a recorded psychiatric diagnosis.

The researchers divided the participants into three diagnostic groups: 1) 11,553 children and adolescents with ADHD (could have other disorders but not ASD); 2) 9,698 with ASD (could have other disorders but not ADHD); and 3) 48,468 with any psychiatric disorders other than ADHD and ASD.

The researchers then looked in the Danish Register of Medical Product Statistics for any purchase of medication that contained dexamphetamine (not approved for use in the US), methylphenidate or atomoxetine (brand name Strattera, a non-stimulant medication). The data showed that 15 percent of the 69,719 children and adolescents with ADHD, ASD or another disorder had received ADHD medication for at least six months.

In the ADHD group, 7,021 (61 percent) of 11,553 participants had been treated with ADHD medication. Out of the 9,698 participants in the ASD group, 1,577 (16 percent) had been treated with ADHD medication, and 1,537 (3 percent) of the 48,468 participants with other psychiatric disorders also had been treated with ADHD medication.

The researchers also found that the 10- to 13-year-old age group had the highest prevalence of ADHD medication in the ADHD and ASD diagnostic groups. Among those with other psychiatric disorders, the 14- to 17-year-old age group had the highest prevalence of ADHD medication treatment.

In the ADHD group, the researchers determined that the participants on average were 12 years old when they began treatment. In the ASD group, the average age for starting treatment was 11 years old, and in the other group, the average age was 13 years old.

Overall, the number of ADHD prescriptions in the collective participant population increased by almost 600 percent among children and adolescents aged 6 to 13.

In the ADHD group, the prescription prevalence increased a little over 600 percent. In the ASD group, prescription prevalence increased almost 500 percent, and in the other psychiatric disorders group, prescription prevalence increased almost 600 percent.

The researchers discovered that the highest upward trend was within the ADHD group, increasing significantly more between the years of 2008 and 2010.

Ultimately, the researchers explained that the data on children and adolescents with ASD using ADHD medication is limited to the context of this study. The researchers strongly suggest that more research needs to be done on the safety, effectiveness and long-term benefits of stimulant medication for children and adolescents with ASD.

The authors mentioned a few limitations of their study.

First, this study only presented ADHD medication prevalence in Denmark, where it is more difficult to get a prescription for these types of medications. The prevalence has definitely increased over the past decade, but it is still lower than in the United States and most other Western countries.

Second, many of the participants might have received treatment with other medications that were not considered in this study.

Lastly, the researchers used a database to find participants with diagnoses based on classifications from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems; therefore, they were not determined by a personal and uniform psychiatric assessment.

This study was published online ahead-of-print in the September edition of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.

Funding was provided by grants from the Danish Council for Independent Research.

Review Date: 
September 13, 2013
Last Updated:
September 13, 2013