ADHD News & Research

Children with ADHD Exhibit Unhealthy Lifestyle Patterns

Kids with ADHD are almost twice as likely to not drink enough water, not get enough sleep, and not exercise enough — when compared to children of the same age without the condition, a recent study finds.

May 13, 2016

Children with ADHD engage in fewer healthy lifestyle behaviors than do their peers without the condition — this according to a study published online in the Journal of Attention Disorders. The study, which followed children between the ages of 7 and 11, found that — after adjusting for age, sex, IQ, ADHD medication use, household income, and four comorbid psychiatric disorders — the participants with ADHD drank less water, consumed more sweetened beverages, used fewer vitamins, read less, engaged in more screen time, exercised less, and slept less than the participants without ADHD.

The researchers, lead by Kathleen F. Holton of American University and Joel Nigg of Oregon Health & Science University, asked 184 parents of children with ADHD and 104 parents of children without ADHD to complete a questionnaire covering seven lifestyle habits. A multivariable ordered logistic regression found an association between ADHD and less-than-healthy lifestyle behaviors such as difficulty falling asleep, using screens for more than two hours a day, and reading for less than one hour a day.

For physicians familiar with ADHD symptoms, these results may come as no surprise. Children with ADHD are “chemically wired” to seek more dopamine, says John Ratey, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Eating carbohydrates triggers a rush of dopamine in the brain,” he says. Drinking sweetened beverages may also satisfy that need. Trouble falling and staying asleep is a known issue for children and adults with the condition. Difficulty focusing, or a comorbid learning disability, can make reading unappealing for children with ADHD, while hyperfocus can drive them to play video games until an adult makes them stop.

Yet the researchers are hopeful that changing these unhealthy behaviors could work as an alternative remedy alongside medication to improve symptoms. “Having their children follow healthy lifestyle behaviors may be an effective intervention either alongside or in the place of traditional ADHD medications,” says Kathleen Holton. “Parents of children with ADHD should talk with their pediatrician about how to improve health behaviors, such as limiting screen time, encouraging physical activity, improving bedtime routines, and drinking water rather than other beverages.”

Journal Reference:

1. Kathleen F. Holton, Joel Nigg. The Association of Lifestyle Factors and ADHD in Children. Journal of Attention Disorders, April 28 2016; Online. DOI: 10.1177/1087054716646452