The Lingering Legacies of ADHD

Youngsters with attention disorders run a higher risk of depression, mental illness, and drug dependence, researchers say

By Carol Marie Cropper

Two new studies of girls and boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) indicate a dramatic increase in their risk of acquiring such afflictions as major depression, bipolar disorder, and drug addiction.

The longitudinal studies took place at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, a teaching facility for Harvard Medical School. They tracked the development of various disorders in boys ages 12 to 22, over 10 years, and in girls between 12 and 17 for for 5 years. The results of the studies were presented on May 26 at the American Psychiatric Assn. annual meeting in Atlanta.


  Compared with a control group, girls with ADHD showed a nineteenfold increase in the odds of experiencing a major depression by age 17. About 46% of the 123 girls with ADHD had a depressive episode, compared with only about 3% of a 112-member control group. The girls with ADHD were 15 times as likely to have developed bipolar disorder, and more than 4 times as likely to suffer from drug dependency.

Meanwhile, about 46% of the 112 boys with ADHD in a separate study experienced major depression by age 22, vs. 7% of a 105-member control group. They were about 8 times more likely to have developed bipolar disorder and twice as apt to have become dependent on drugs.

"Children with ADHD, when they reach adult shores, have a very high risk for a wide range of adverse outcomes," says Dr. Joseph Biederman, a Harvard Medical School professor and lead researcher in the studies.


  Adult attention disorders cost the U.S. $77 billion annually, Biederman says. (See BW Online, 5/24/05, "ADHD: The $77 Billion Curse".)

In the U.S., about 5% of girls, and 10% of boys, ages 5 to 18 suffer from ADHD, Biederman says. Many observers had assumed that girls did not develop some of the problems boys did, according to Biederman. "Girls with ADHD tend to be underdiagnosed and undertreated." But, he says, people should consider ADHD a serious problem for juvenile females as well as males. It's not just a question of why "Johnny" can't sit still anymore.

Cropper is a correspondent for BusinessWeek in the Atlanta bureau

Edited by Phil Mintz