From the Journals

Teens with diagnosed and undiagnosed ADHD report similar quality of life



Teens diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in childhood reported similar overall quality of life compared with teens with ADHD behaviors but no childhood diagnosis, a new study finds.

The results align with findings from other studies suggesting lower quality of life (QOL) in teens with ADHD, but the current study is the first known to focus on the association between ADHD diagnosis itself vs. ADHD symptoms, and QOL, the researchers wrote. The findings show that at least some of the reduced QOL is associated with the diagnosis itself, they explained.

The researchers directly compared 393 teens with a childhood ADHD diagnosis to 393 matched teens with no ADHD diagnosis but who had hyperactive/inattentive behaviors.

The researchers reviewed self-reports from individuals who were enrolled in a population-based prospective study in Australia. The primary outcome was quality of life at age 14-15, which was measured with Child Health Utility 9D (CHU9D), a validated quality of life measure.

Study results

Overall, teens with and without an ADHD diagnosis reported similar levels of overall quality of life; the mean difference in the primary outcome CHU9D score was –0.03 (P = .10). Teens with and without an ADHD diagnosis also showed similar scores on measures of general health, happiness, and peer trust, the researchers noted.

The researchers also reviewed eight other prespecified, self-reported measures: academic self-concept, global health, negative social behaviors, overall happiness, peer trust, psychological sense of school membership, self-efficacy, and self-harm.

Teens diagnosed with ADHD in childhood were more than twice as likely to report self-harm (odds ratio 2.53, P less than .001) and displayed significantly more negative social behaviors (mean difference 1.56, P = .002), compared with teens without an ADHD diagnosis.

Teens diagnosed with ADHD in childhood also scored significantly worse on measures of sense of school membership (mean difference −2.58, P less than .001), academic self-concept (mean difference, −0.14; P = .02), and self-efficacy (mean difference −0.20; P = .007), compared to teens without an ADHD diagnosis.

The average age at ADHD diagnosis was 10 years, and 72% of the ADHD-diagnosed group were boys. No significant differences were noted for levels of hyperactive/inattentive behaviors and between girls and boys, but girls overall and children with the highest levels of hyperactive and inattentive behaviors reported generally worse outcomes, regardless of ADHD diagnosis, the researchers noted.

Don’t rush to diagnosis

Although rates of ADHD diagnosis in children continue to rise, the prevalence of hyperactivity and inattentive behaviors appears stable, which suggests a problem with diagnosis, senior author Alexandra Barratt, MBBS, MPH, PhD, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, Australia, said in an interview.

“Our hypothesis was that children who had been diagnosed, and we assume treated for, ADHD would have better outcomes, compared to children matched for hyperactivity/inattention behaviors who were left undiagnosed and untreated, but we were surprised to find that, at best, outcomes were unchanged, and for some outcomes, worse,” Dr. Barratt said.

“Our study provides evidence that diagnosing ADHD may lead, inadvertently, to long-term harms, particularly for children with mild or borderline hyperactivity and inattention behaviors,” she emphasized.

“We can’t say from this study what to do instead, but previously one of our team has looked at stepped diagnosis as an alternative option for children with mild or borderline hyperactivity and inattention behaviors,” she said.

The stepped diagnosis includes such actions as gathering behavior data from multiple sources, and conducting a period of watchful waiting without presumption of a diagnosis or active treatment.

Given the findings of the new study, “I would ask that health professionals considering a child who may have ADHD be aware that there is an evidence gap around the long-term impact of an ADHD diagnosis on children, and to proceed cautiously,” Dr. Barratt said. As for additional research, independent, high-quality, randomized controlled trials of ADHD diagnosis in children with mild or borderline hyperactivity/inattention behaviors are urgently needed, with long-term, patient-centered outcomes including quality of life she noted.

ADHD screening needs improvement

The incidence and prevalence of ADHD is on the rise, but much of the perceived increase in ADHD may be due to overdiagnosis, “and a lack of robust thorough psychological testing as standard of care for diagnosis,” Peter Loper, MD, a pediatrician and psychiatrist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, said in an interview.

The current study “reinforces the necessity of consistent screening for comorbid mental health problems, and specifically for thoughts of self-harm, in those children who are diagnosed with ADHD,” he said.

Expressing his lack of astonishment about the study findings, Dr. Loper said: “Previous data indicates that while following initial diagnosis of a medical or mental health problem, patients may experience a sense of relief; however, this is followed shortly thereafter by feelings of insufficiency or anxiety related to their specific diagnosis.”

“As it stands now, ADHD is often diagnosed in children and adolescents using basic screening questionnaires,” said Dr. Loper. “The findings of this study may bolster calls for more robust and thorough psychological testing for supporting the diagnosis of ADHD,” he said.

Individuals diagnosed with ADHD can sometimes have difficulty with social skills and relating to others, said Dr. Loper. “They may be more prone to internalize their poor school performance as due to being ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb,’ ” he said. Children and teens with ADHD should, whenever possible, be involved in extracurricular activities that support the development of social skills, he said. Parents’ praise of the process/effort, rather than focusing only on outcomes such as grades, is very important for the esteem of children and teens with ADHD, he added.

The study limitations included the use of observational data vs. data from randomized trials, and the potential for confounding factors in propensity scoring, the researchers wrote. Additional limitations include the size of the sample, which may have been too small to detect additional differences between diagnosed teens and matched controls, they noted.

“As the study authors appropriately cite, a large, randomized trial would be very helpful in supporting additional understanding of this issue,” Dr. Loper added.

The study was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council The researchers and Dr. Loper had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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