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ADHD and Substance Abuse

ADHD may last into adulthood about a third to half the time, and some studies have shown that children with ADHD may be more likely than the general population to develop alcohol and substance abuse problems when they get older.

Are Drug Abuse and Alcoholism More Common Among People With ADHD?

Several studies have shown a strong connection between ADHD, drug abuse, and alcoholism. ADHD is five to 10 times more common among adult alcoholics than it is in people without the condition. Among adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse, the rate of ADHD is about 25%.

It is also more common for children with ADHD to start abusing alcohol during their teenage years. In one study, 14% of children ages 15-17 with ADHD had problems with alcohol abuse or dependence as adults, compared to peers without ADHD. Another study found that at a mean age of 14.9 years, 40% of children with ADHD began using alcohol, compared to 22% of children without an ADHD diagnosis -- a strong predictor of alcohol and substance abuse in adulthood. Young adults (mean age of 25), on the other hand, were just as likely to use alcohol whether or not they had an ADHD diagnosis, but those with ADHD were likelier to use alcohol excessively .

Researchers have also found links between ADHD and the use of marijuana and other recreational drugs, particularly in people who also have other psychological disorders (such as obsessive-compulsive disorder). What's more, people with ADHD typically start having problems with drugs and alcohol at an earlier age than people without the condition.

 

Why Are People With ADHD More Likely to Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

People with ADHD tend to be more impulsive and likely to have behavior problems, both of which can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, researchers say. Also, both ADHD and alcoholism tend to run in families. A child with ADHD who has a parent with alcoholism is more likely to also develop an alcohol abuse problem. Researchers have pointed to common genes shared between ADHD and alcoholism.

Are Stimulant Drugs for ADHD Addictive?

Parents sometimes worry whether the stimulant drugs their children are taking to treat ADHD (such as Ritalin) are themselves addictive. Stimulant medications work by raising levels of a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain, which helps improve focus and attention -- skills that people with ADHD often find difficult to master.

Dopamine also affects emotion and the feeling of pleasure, creating a "high" that makes people want more. Because cocaine and other street drugs also raise dopamine levels, there has been concern that ADHD stimulants might be similarly addictive. Ritalin's ability to increase energy and focus has even led some people to refer to it as the "poor man's cocaine."

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