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ADHD Diagnosis Rates Jump for Children in the U.S.

A new study shows that ADHD diagnoses in children have been rising for the last decade, mainly due to increases in girls and minority communities.

Posted on December 10, 2015

Children in the U.S. saw a nearly 43 percent surge in ADHD diagnoses between 2003 and 2011, a new report finds. The increase was more pronounced for girls and minorities – particularly Hispanics. Experts have some theories to explain the increase, but they are unclear as to the exact reasons for the steep rise.

The report, conducted by researchers at George Washington University, used CDC data on more than 190,000 children to show that the percentage of U.S. children diagnosed with ADHD rose from 8.4 percent in 2003 to 12 percent by 2011. Though ADHD is still most commonly diagnosed in white children, the report indicated large surges in most minority populations. Hispanic children, in particular, led the pack with an 83 percent increase in ADHD diagnoses, while black children saw an increase of 58 percent.

The reasons for the diagnosis uptick in minority populations aren’t entirely clear, but some experts hypothesize that this may reflect greater resources being devoted to treating ADHD in minority communities. As past studies have suggested that minority children in America may be under-diagnosed, Dr. Timothy Wilens, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, hopes that these results “reflect appropriately increased testing and evaluation of academic and interpersonal difficulties” in these previously underserved communities.

Diagnosis rates among girls also saw a sharp jump, rising 55 percent from 4.7 percent in 2003 to 7.3 percent in 2011. Rates still remain higher among boys – particularly white boys – but the increase in girls’ diagnoses indicates that perceptions of ADHD as a “boys’ disorder” are changing rapidly. In other words, girls whose inattentive symptoms slipped under the radar in 2003 may not have been overlooked by 2011.

Older children were also more likely to be diagnosed by 2011, the report found. Teens between the ages of 15 and 17 showed a 52 percent increase in diagnosis, compared to 33 percent in children ages five to nine. As with the minority communities, researchers hope that this indicates increasing recognition of older adolescents who may be struggling, despite perhaps avoiding an ADHD diagnosis in early childhood.

Perhaps undercutting the accuracy of the data, researchers warn, is the fact that the diagnosis information was self-reported, as well as telephone surveys that didn’t include cell phones until 2011. The results, however, sync up with those found in smaller, community-based surveys, and the increased awareness linked to high diagnosis rates should lead to better treatment options, experts say.

“If you don’t know that something is the case, then you can’t do anything for it,” , head of the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “Knowing we have these high numbers of ADHD prevalence, we can be prepared for it and we can accommodate for it.”

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