ADHD News & Research

ADHD Diagnosis Linked to Greater Risk of Premature Death

ADHD professionals have long suspected a link between an ADHD diagnosis and dying at a young age, but no definitive studies existed to prove it. Now, disturbing new research suggests a stronger correlation than previously thought.

February 26, 2015

People with ADHD are known to be accident-prone — hyperactivity and impulsivity are a combustible mix and can lead to dangerous behaviors. But an unsettling new study suggests that the risk goes beyond an occasional fall or fender bender: An ADHD diagnosis may be linked to a greater risk of dying prematurely.

The study, conducted by a research team at Aarhus University in Denmark, tracked 2 million Danish children — born between 1987 and 2011 — from their first birthdays until 2013, when the study ended. Thirty-two thousand had been diagnosed with ADHD, and of those, 107 had died before the age of 33. This was almost twice the rate of premature death for people without ADHD, even when controlling for factors like sex, occupation, or family history of psychiatric disorders.

The study’s authors said “the excess mortality in ADHD was mainly driven by deaths from unnatural causes, especially accidents.” In fact, a significant majority of those who died prematurely — 78 percent — were involved in preventable accidents like car crashes or drug overdoses. Since ADHD is frequently linked to conduct disorders, mood disorders, and substance abuse, the researchers hypothesized that the aggression, low moods, or antisocial tendencies that often come with ADHD may contribute to the higher risk for premature death – alongside the usual culprits of inattention and impulsive behavior.

People who were diagnosed later in life — primarily after age 18 — showed even greater risk for dying young. Somewhat surprisingly, women were shown to have a higher risk of premature death than men — possibly due to a greater likelihood of a missed diagnosis during childhood.

Car accidents were a leading cause of death in the study, which should come as no surprise. It has been well documented that people with ADHD are prone to speeding, quick lane changes, and zoning out behind the wheel. A separate study, published last year in JAMA online, found that having ADHD increased a man’s risk of a traffic accident by 47 percent, and a woman’s risk by 45 percent. Thankfully, the study was conducted using virtual reality simulators, so the connection between car accidents and premature death wasn’t calculated. But the high rate of car-related deaths in Aarhus University’s recent study seems to solidify the link.

Though this new study seems alarming, researchers say that ADHD adults and parents of ADHD children should not panic. As with all observational studies, the study identified only a correlation between ADHD and premature death. It remains unclear whether ADHD actually caused the phenomenon. The study was comprehensive and well executed, but it looked only at Denmark, which may have extenuating factors contributing to the link.

However, William Dodson, M.D., founder of the Dodson ADHD Center in Greenwood Village, Colorado, says that some smaller U.S.-based studies have looked at similar patterns and found similar results — particularly those conducted by Dr. Russell Barkley. Barkley’s Milwaukee Study started over 30 years ago, and has followed people with ADHD from elementary school to the present day. The results are clear, says Dodson. “When ADHDers are off medication, they have a 400 percent increase in accidents of all sorts. On medication, they are the same as non-ADHD people.”

It’s no secret that undiagnosed ADHD leads to academic, social, or workplace difficulties and increases risky behaviors. Any adult who was diagnosed late in life can attest to the missed opportunities and unnecessary risk-taking that comes with undiagnosed ADHD — as well as the relief an accurate diagnosis can bring. Now, this study takes it even further, suggesting that early diagnosis, awareness, and treatment have an even bigger benefit — a possible deterrent to early death.

“It’s not just that untreated ADHD can ruin or end your life in 100 different ways,” says Dodson. “Treatment is protective against these calamities.”