A new study reveals that the number of children in 2011-12 diagnosed with ADHD is 2 million higher in the US, compared with 2003-04. Additionally, 1 million more American children are taking medication for the disorder than previously.

The study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Using data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH), researchers calculated estimates of the number of children in the US between the ages of 4 and 17, whose parents reported their receipt of a diagnosis for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) from a health care provider.

According to the CDC, ADHD is one of the most common childhood neurobehavioral disorders, and it can persist into adulthood. Symptoms of ADHD include trouble paying attention or controlling impulsive behaviors.

Further results of the recent study show that among children aged 4- to 17-years-old in the US:

  • 6.4 million (11%) were reported by parents as receiving an ADHD diagnosis from a health care professional, which is a 42% increase between 2003-04 and 2011-12.
  • 3.5 million (6%) were reported by parents as taking ADHD medication, which is a 28% increase between 2007-08 and 2011-12.

Importance of understanding treatment patterns

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Children diagnosed with ADHD have a better chance of thriving in their personal and academic lives with early initiation of behavioral therapy, researchers say.

Treating ADHD often includes medication, mental health treatment or both.

Researchers from the CDC note that children diagnosed with ADHD have the best chance of thriving in their personal and academic lives when they receive proper treatment.

However, with the number of ADHD-diagnosed children increasing, this also puts an increasing burden on the US health care system. As such, the researchers say efforts to "understand ADHD diagnostic and treatment patterns are warranted."

According to scientists at the CDC, children are frequently diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. In the study, half of children with ADHD were diagnosed by the age of 6, however, those with more severe forms of the disorder were diagnosed earlier.

Susanna Visser, lead author of the study from the CDC, says:

"This finding suggests that there are a large number of young children who could benefit from the early initiation of behavioral therapy, which is recommended as the first-line treatment for preschool children with ADHD."

Providing further insight into ADHD treatment, the study shows that nearly 1 in 5 children with ADHD did not receive treatment.

"This finding raises concerns about whether these children and their families are receiving needed services," says Dr. Michael Lu, from the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA).

Interestingly, the study showed that states vary when it comes to ADHD diagnosis. The percentage of children who had received an ADHD diagnosis ranges from 15% in Arkansas and Kentucky to 4% in Nevada.

A 'substantial proportion' are receiving treatment

Although the increase shown in the CDC's data may surprise some individuals, in a linked commentary to the study, Dr. John T. Walkup notes that a positive message can still be found.

Despite the ADHD diagnosis increase over the past decade, he says "the CDC's prevalence estimate of ADHD diagnosis is very close to the community-based prevalence of ADHD as ascertained in high-quality epidemiologic studies."

Because approximately 70% of currently diagnosed cases are receiving medication, this means "a substantial proportion of those with ADHD diagnoses are receiving treatment."

He adds that the rates of treated ADHD are lower than the rate of ADHD diagnosis, which suggests there is "a pattern of undertreatment of ADHD, not of overtreatment, as commonly thought."

Dr. Walkup concludes:

"It is important to not overreact simply to the notion of increasing rates of diagnosis and treatment without considering the whole picture. It is absolutely critical to benchmark current diagnosis and treatment rates against prevalence estimates to best serve the public health."

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested EEG brainwave tests may be helpful in distinguishing subtypes of ADHD.