Prescriptions for ADHD drugs double among adults

The number of U.S. adults and young adults receiving prescriptions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has nearly doubled over the past four years, The New York Times reported.

In new data released today, drug manager Express Scripts reported a 53 percent increase in ADHD prescriptions for adults and a 47 percent increase in ADHD prescriptions for young adults between 2008 and 2012. Overall, 2.6 million adults and 640,000 young adults received ADHD prescriptions in 2012. Additionally, 5.7 percent of all children ages 4 to 18 were being prescribed medications for the disorder in 2012, according to the report.

Furthermore, while prescriptions for men decrease after age 18,  there was an 85 percent increase in prescriptions for women ages 26-34. In women, ADHD tends to cause periods of inattentiveness, as opposed to hyperactivity – which may result in their symptoms going undiagnosed.

“[People] tend to think of ADHD as hyperactive, aggressive young boys climbing the walls at school and at home,” Dr. David Muzina, Express Scripts’ vice president of specialist practice, told “If you’re quietly daydreaming or inattentive, it may escape attention.”

Express Scripts processes prescriptions for 90 million Americans. Medications used to treat ADHD include stimulants like Adderall and Concerta, as well as newer nonstimulant formulations such as Strattera. While these drugs help manage symptoms like severe inattention and hyperactivity, they can also lead to side effects including sleep deprivation, appetite suppression and, rarely, addiction and hallucinations.

According to some experts, the report shows that ADHD is being overdiagnosed – and that drugs are being overprescribed.  

“It’s hard to dismiss the data in this report,” Brooke Molina, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and one of the disorder’s leading researchers, told The New York Times. “There are limitations with every study, but it’s hard to do anything here but conclude that we have a continually forward-marching increase.”

Muzina emphasized the need for patients to be aware that a comprehensive diagnosis is needed before getting a prescription.

“From my perspective as a practicing psychiatrist and physician, if you go to the doctor and are handed a prescription for a stimulant after 15 minutes, I’d be hesitant to accept,” Muzina said. “There is some degree of this increase in trend that’s related to misdiagnosis or overdiagnosis.”

Others attribute the increases to a better understanding of the disorder—and an increasing awareness that ADHD affects adults, in addition to children. Some studies estimate about 10 million adults have ADHD.

“We still know that a majority of adults with ADHD. are untreated,” said Dr. Lenard A. Adler, director of the adult ADHD program at NYU Langone Medical Center.

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