High-Altitude Living Linked to Lower ADHD Rates

Fresh mountain air may have health benefits after all when it comes to attention deficit.
ADHD News Feed | posted by Devon Frye

The ultimate cause of ADHD is still up in the air, but researchers might have found a new piece of the puzzle: As altitude goes up, the prevalence of ADHD appears to go down.

The study, published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, found a strong and consistent negative correlation between states’ average altitudes and their rate of ADHD. In Utah, for example, where the average altitude is 6,100 feet above sea level, the statewide rate of ADHD is 6.7 percent — about half the rate of states at sea level. Other high-elevation Mountain West states — including Nevada and Colorado — also show low rates of ADHD that were well below the national average. Nevada, with an average elevation of 5,517 feet, led the pack with a diagnosis rate of 5.6 percent

Meanwhile, in Delaware, Louisiana, and Florida — states where the average elevation hovers close to or at sea level — researchers found the highest ADHD rates. In some cases, they were as high as 15 percent. The study controlled for other factors (like birth weight, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status) that might contribute to a higher incidence of ADHD.

The researchers, who hail from the University of Utah, hypothesized that the decreased rates of ADHD may be linked to higher levels of dopamine produced as a result of “hypobaric hypoxia” — a condition caused by breathing oxygen-thin air at higher elevations. Low dopamine levels are linked to ADHD, so it’s possible that when dopamine levels go up in response to lower oxygen levels, the likelihood of ADHD goes down.

However, researchers caution, worried parents shouldn’t be relocating to the mountains just yet. Recent studies have also linked high altitudes to an increased rate of depression and suicide, and researchers still aren’t fully sure how higher elevations relate to mental health.

But the study is promising, researchers say, because it shines a spotlight on dopamine and its link to ADHD. “To treat ADHD, we often give someone medication that increases dopamine,” says Perry F. Renshaw, M.D., one of the authors of the study. “Does this mean we should be increasing medications that target dopamine?”

At the very least, Renshaw says, “Parents or patients” [especially those who live at lower altitudes] “might want to take this information to their health-care provider to discuss it with them.”

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