A study of more than 5 million Kaiser Permanente/Northern California patients suggests that the prevalence of adults diagnosed with ADHD has dramatically increased over the last 10 years (JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Nov 1.).
Over the interval between 2007 and 2016, the prevalence of ADHD went from 0.43% to 0.96%, an increase of more than 120%. For adults, being white, male, younger, employed, and better educated increased one’s chances of receiving an ADHD diagnosis. Having a comorbid mental health diagnosis such as an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, or being labeled as bipolar also increased the odds of acquiring the ADHD label.
Are our screening tools too coarse, allowing a significant number of children to slip through the cracks only to land in the laps of our colleagues in internal medicine and family practice? If this were the case, does this mean that adult and youth ADHD are basically the same condition, but in some individuals the signs and symptoms become more obvious with aging? Does it also suggest that there is a genetic basis to ADHD with variable expression? Could it be that individuals with adult ADHD exhibited a few of the hallmarks of the diagnosis when they were young, but aggravating factors in the environment such as job stress or marital discord unmasked the signs and symptoms that had been percolating just under our radar for decades?
As usual, there is no simple answer that explains the findings unearthed by these researchers. One gets a sense from reading their paper that the authors feel that ADHD is being diagnosed more often as more individuals have access to physicians and other professionals who are attuned to the diagnosis. The fact that white, better-educated, and employed men are more likely to acquire the diagnosis might support the argument that as segments of the population who have been underserved by the health care system come on board we will continue to see a rise in the number of adults with the diagnosis. The more patients who see health care providers who are primed to make the diagnosis, the more often the diagnosis will be made.
I am sure there is a segment of the population who enter the world with some genetically mediated chemical or structural vulnerability that results in the signs and symptoms of ADHD. Most, but not all, of these individuals have symptoms that are so obvious that they present in childhood. However, a larger number of children and most adults who are labeled with ADHD are exhibiting the symptoms of inattention, distractibility, and impulsiveness as the result of environmental factors such as sleep deprivation, family or job stress, and other comorbid mental health conditions, or simply because they were young for their school cohort.
Pediatricians need not feel that we have missed another opportunity for prevention because the prevalence of the diagnosis of adult ADHD is increasing dramatically. However, that increase should serve as another reminder to us that there can be multiple factors that can result in signs and symptoms that attract the label of ADHD. We must be careful and look long and hard before we diagnose and reach for our prescription pad.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.