WOMEN'S HEALTH
August 17, 2016

Women and ADHD

Women with ADHD tend to live in poverty, suffer from anxiety and depression, and fly under the radar of mental health programs.

ADHD isn't just for little boys. A study of nearly 4,000 young Canadian women with ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has found that not only do lots of adult women suffer from the disorder, they are four times as likely to have suicidal thoughts, more than three times as likely to have sleep problems and more than twice as likely to have major depression and substance abuse problems than women without the disorder are.

As if that wasn't enough, the study also revealed that they had twice the odds of living in a household in the lowest 10% of national income, with more than one-third reporting that they had insufficient income to cover basic needs such as food and shelter.

More than one in four (28%) women with ADHD also reported experiencing chronic pain, a rate triple that of non-ADHD women.

ADHD is most often thought of as a childhood disease, but it also affects adults. There's no cure, and not every child with ADHD outgrows it. While there has not been much research on how often it persists into adulthood, one study found it did so nearly 30% of the time.

There have been even fewer studies on ADHD in women. To address this gap, researchers from the University of Toronto examined the results of the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, a large, nationally representative survey, to develop a profile of the mental and physical health characteristics of Canadian women with ADHD, as well as a profile of some of their more basic vital and social characteristics.

What they found was a great deal of associated mental illness, physical health problems and financial difficulties.

The women in the study ranged in age from 20 to 39; there were 107 with ADHD and 3,801 without ADHD.

“The prevalence of mental illness among women with ADHD was disturbingly high with 46% having seriously considered suicide, 36% having generalized anxiety disorder, 31% having major depressive disorder and 39% having substance abuse problems at some point in their life,” said the study's lead author, Esme Fuller-Thomson.

More than one in four (28%) women with ADHD also reported experiencing chronic pain, a rate triple that of non-ADHD women.

The study is not designed to tell us about the relationship among these physical and mental ills and ADHD. “Unfortunately, our study does not provide insight into why women with ADHD are so vulnerable. It is possible that some of the mental health problems may be caused by and/or contributing to financial stress,” suggests Fuller-Thomson. But the team does offer some ways to help women with attention deficits going forward.

They cite other research suggesting that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is both effective and cost-effective for adults with ADHD. They also suggest that future research should take a closer look at the effectiveness of exercise in improving both the physical and mental condition of women with ADHD.

Why has ADHD traditionally been thought of as a male condition? The authors suggest that girls with ADHD are more likely to show symptoms of inattention, while the impulsivity and hyperactivity shown by boys is more disruptive and more readily noticed.

There were only 107 women with ADHD in this study, too small a sample to define a national profile. But the study findings do strongly suggest that there's a lot more to ADHD than boys behaving badly.

The study appears in Child: Care, Health and Development.

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