Children given stimulants to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms score higher on math and reading tests than children with the condition who do not get drugs, researchers said on Monday.
A study that tracked 594 children diagnosed with ADHD from kindergarten through fifth grade found the 60 percent who were prescribed drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall performed better on standardized tests than peers with ADHD who were not given medication.
But the scores of children treated with drugs for ADHD still lagged children not diagnosed with the condition.
"We're not promoting drugs as the answer. But we did find medication does improve standardized math and reading scores in the long term," said Richard Scheffler of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the researchers.
"Our study found that the children with ADHD who used the medication were several months ahead of their nonmedicated peers in reading and math, which is significant because early progress in school is critical to ongoing academic success," Scheffler said.
Scheffler said children with ADHD who are left untreated do poorly in school, with higher dropout rates and more substance abuse, arrests and social isolation.
"They're labeled as bad kids," he said in a telephone interview. "Drugs are part of the answer. But we need parent involvement, understanding what this is and how to work with the kid. We need the school to be involved. We also think that special services like tutoring need to be made available."
Condition More Common in Boys
Of nearly 8 percent of American children, or 4.4 million children, diagnosed with ADHD, 56 percent are prescribed medications, mostly stimulants, according to the report published in the journal Pediatrics. Boys are more commonly diagnosed with the disorder than girls.
There are some 30 medications used to treat the disorder, including Novartis AG's Ritalin and Focalin XR, Shire Plc's Adderall XR and Daytrana patch, Johnson & Johnson's Concerta, Eli Lilly and Co's Strattera and Celltech Pharmaceuticals Inc's Metadate CD.
The study was government-funded and did not have links to companies that make the drugs.
Scheffler said the study showed the importance of recognizing and treating a disorder that affects millions of people, including adults who are increasingly being prescribed the drugs.
ADHD is a widely accepted but still controversial diagnosis, he noted, citing the understandable reluctance to medicate children with powerful stimulants.
But he said the drugs have been proven safe, with few side effects. Those can include loss of sleep and appetite and, in rare cases, temporary hallucinations and psychosis.