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Childhood ADHD Linked to Later Risk of Drug Abuse

Study Shows Kids With ADHD May Have Increased Risk for Drug and Alcohol Problems as Young Adults
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Young woman smoking cigarette

June 1, 2011 -- Childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) increases the risk of cigarette smoking and drug and alcohol abuse problems in early adulthood, a study shows.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Researchers found that children with ADHD and conduct disorder have about triple the risk of developing substance abuse problems compared to those with ADHD alone.

ADHD is a behavioral disorder characterized by impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and inattention. Some people with ADHD also have conduct disorder, a pattern of disruptive and violent behaviors.  

"ADHD increases your risk for cigarette smoking and substance abuse pretty dramatically, and you have to be mindful of that," says study researcher Timothy Wilens, MD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital Pediatric Psychopharmacology Unit and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "If a kid has conduct disorder too, you have to talk about these risks and be careful not to keep extra alcohol and prescription drugs in your medication cabinet."

The onus is on everyone involved. "Parents need to be on top of it and the practitioner does too, and the kid has to own some of it," he says.

Substance Abuse Risk

The researchers examined data from two studies looking at the prevalence of psychiatric and behavioral disorders seen along with ADHD in children. The average age of participants when the study started was about 10, and participants were followed for 10 years. Those study participants diagnosed with ADHD were about 1.5 times more likely to developing substance abuse problems after 10 years, compared with those without ADHD.

Children with persistent ADHD -- or those who still had ADHD after 10 years of follow-up -- were at greater risk for developing substance abuse problems, compared with people who no longer had an ADHD diagnosis after 10 years, the study shows.

People who also had conduct disorder and ADHD had about three times the risk for developing substance abuse problems, compared to those with ADHD alone, the study shows.

The risk of developing a substance abuse problem was not affected by gender, cognitive difficulties, mood disorders, school problems, or family history of substance abuse.

"Boys and girls with ADHD were equal in terms of their risk of developing substance abuse. And academic achievement and cognitive issues did not predict substance abuse at all, so there is probably something else going on," Wilens says.

Role of Medication

The exact role that ADHD treatment, such as stimulant drugs, may play in reducing the risk of substance abuse among people with ADHD is not clear from this study.

The study found that medication treatment did not affect the risk for substance abuse, but more studies would be needed to look at these issues directly to draw any firm conclusions, Wilens says.

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