The report, from prescription provider Express Scripts, finds a large overall increase in the number of Americans treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a 36 percent rise in just five years. More than 4.8 million people covered by private health insurance insurance have filled at least one prescription for ADHD, the report finds.
“The rapid increase in adult use of these medications is striking, especially since there is very little research on how these treatments affect an older population,” said Express Scripts’ Dr. David Muzina. “It signals a need to look more closely at how and why physicians prescribe these medications for adults, particularly women, who may turn to these medications, or experience symptoms of attention disorders, as a result of keeping up with the multiple demands on their time.”
The findings don’t surprise Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley who has studied ADHD in girls and young women. “These are women who need help,” Hinshaw told NBC News.
It may partly reflect the rise in diagnoses among children. ADHD drugs are mostly prescribed to children and their use was up nearly 19 percent, but adult use rose even faster, up more than 53 percent, the report said.
“Since females tend to present the inattentive form of ADHD and do not display disruptive behavior in school, their symptoms may be overlooked in childhood. As they age, they may become more aware of their symptoms and consult their physician,” the Express Scripts’ report notes.
Just under a third of people who had ADHD as children never “grew out of it”, William Barbaresi and colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital found last year.
“Among adults, women far outnumber men in their use of ADHD treatments, the reverse of childhood trends where only half as many girls as boys take ADHD medications,” the report finds.
“The number of males using ADHD drugs plummets after age 18, while women ages 19 to 25 surpass younger girls’ use of these medications, 4.4 percent vs. 3.5 percent respectively in 2012.”
Hinshaw said the rise in diagnoses for women may reflect a lag in recognizing the problem. “We found that by their early 20s, girls with ADHD were suffering academically just like boys with ADHD. They were having difficult relationships, just like boys with ADHD,” he said.
But the girls were not acting out. Instead, they were turning their distress inwards, cutting themselves, thinking about suicide and even attempting it. “This (rise in diagnoses) would be helpful if it eliminated this self-injurious behavior,” said Hinshaw, who has co-written a new book, “The ADHD Explosion.”