BEHAVIOR
August 9, 2016

The Hidden Benefits of ADHD Meds

Yes, the drugs used to treat ADHD have side effects; but they also have secondary benefits.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, is characterized by inattention, impulsiveness and hyperactivity. People with ADHD are known to be at higher risk for risky behaviors such as dangerous driving, drug use and risky sexual behavior, as well as at risk for poor performance at home, difficulties in school, among friends and in the work place.

The number of children diagnosed with ADHD rose 40 percent between 2003 and 2011 and it is estimated that eleven percent of children in the United States ages 4-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Almost 70 percent of them are treated with medications such as the stimulants — methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines like Adderall; and non-stimulants, such as atomoxetine (Strattera) and guanfacine (Estulic, Tenex and the extended release Intuniv).

When people with ADHD are treated with medication, it can reduce some short- and long-term health problems related to the ADHD diagnosis.

ADHD is often treated with medications. Parents of children and adult individuals with ADHD may be hesitant to use these medications because of concerns about potential side effects and because of the stigma attached to the diagnosis and treatment.

Primary and Secondary Benefits of Treating ADHD with Medication

But medication deserves more consideration. Medication to treat ADHD can be highly effective, preventing or decreasing symptoms of the disorder. This can have secondary gains that go far beyond symptom suppression, including reducing crime.

For example, when drugs help improve school performance, children gain in positive self-esteem and avoid a downward cycle of underachievement and failure. When social and family functioning is improved, individuals may avoid or decrease the risk of depression and anxiety.

The Study
There are three known risks to individuals with ADHD — substance use disorder; risky sexual behavior and sexually-transmitted diseases; and injuries. A recent study looked at the impact medication has on each. While the impulsiveness of kids with ADHD often brings injuries at all ages, even the youngest, risky sexual behavior and substance abuse occur most often among teens.

Using data from Medicaid claims in South Carolina, the Princeton and Clemson University researchers reviewed the records of about 58,600 children ages 4-17 who were diagnosed and treated for ADHD between 2003 and 2013 to see how often these three target outcomes occurred.

People with ADHD who used medication were over seven percent less likely to receive medical attention for a substance use disorder.

The average rate of ADHD in the Medicaid population of South Carolina 2003-2013 was almost 20 percent. This is far higher than the national average of 12.6 percent, but the researchers maintain that the incidence in the Medicaid population is disproportionately higher than the general population. Almost 80 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD in South Carolina were treated with medications.

The data revealed that medication therapy was in fact helpful. “We find evidence that ADHD medication treatment reduces the probability and severity of a wide range of short-term and lifetime negative health outcomes,” they wrote. “It is effective in reducing the probability of an ADHD teenager contracting an STD, becoming pregnant, suffering from a substance use and abuse disorder, and having an injury.”

Over the course of the teenage years, medication treatment for ADHD decreased the probability of contracting a sexually transmitted disease by 3.6 percentage points. And people with ADHD who used medication were over seven percent less likely to receive medical attention for a substance use disorder.

Treatment also appeared to decrease the rate of teen pregnancy among individuals with ADHD, but the results were not considered to be statistically significant. The probability of injuries was also lower in treated individuals by 2.3 percentage points per year.

Health — and Healthcare — Savings

When people with ADHD are treated with medication, the findings show, it can reduce some acute and chronic health problems related to the ADHD diagnosis. This translates into fewer children and teens with injuries, sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancies and substance use disorders, and also deceases society's health care costs from these conditions.

Not only can medication help prevent some health risks associated with attention deficits, the researchers suggest that treatment may also decrease the severity of these situations when they do occur; and improving the health outcomes of treated individuals will likely also indirectly benefit their friends and families.

The side effects of the medications prescribed for attention deficits vary with the medication and the person taking them. This study makes a case for the fact that the medications can improve individuals' long-term health and personal adjustment. In so doing, they also offer economic benefits in the form of decreased healthcare costs.

The study is published in Labour Economics.

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