Study: Abuse of ADHD Meds is Beginning Earlier

The abuse of ADHD medication is commonly associated with black-market Ritalin or Adderall on campus to aid last-minute cramming sessions. However, a recent study indicates the abuse of ADHD drugs begins much earlier than college.

The Dark Side of ADHD Drugs

According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, researchers conclude that preventive measures to curb ADHD drug misuse should actually begin in middle school.

In a university press release, Elizabeth Austic, study author and postdoctoral fellow of the university’s Injury Center, states, “We need to have a realistic understanding of when young people are beginning to experiment with stimulants, so we can prevent them from misusing for the first time.”

Using information gathered by the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, researchers analyzed data from 240,000 respondents aged 12 to 21.

Along with ADHD medications, the study looked at other stimulant drugs, such as prescription diet pills and medications containing methamphetamine.

Some of the most concerning findings include:

  • The peak ages for ADHD misuse are between 16 and 19 — mostly pre-college age.
  • Adderall is the most misused stimulant drug among males.
  • Prescription diet pills were the most abused stimulant drugs among females.
  • Adolescents between the ages 13 and 14 were just as likely to use stimulants for the first time as adolescents between the ages 20 and 21.

“To prevent someone from using for the first time is often more cost-efficient and effective than trying to intervene once they have done it,” Austic explains, “whether a few times or for years.”

The Lure of ADHD Meds

ADHD medications, like all stimulants, increase dopamine – the neurotransmitter responsible for both heightened attention and pleasure. This effect on brain chemistry, coupled with the fact that roughly 6.4 million young people are now diagnosed with ADHD, the risk of abusing a potentially “feel-good” drug has to be addressed proactively.

“Ultimately, we need to see more interventions that are school-based and doctor’s office-based interventions starting in early adolescence, for both young people who have a prescription and those who don’t,” says Austic.

Truth and Consequences

Unfortunately, the abuse of ADHD medication has consequences…none of which include the debunked notion that these meds improve academic performance. Serious risks of ADHD medication abuse include dependence, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and sudden death.

“The earlier people begin misusing drugs of any kind, the more likely they are to develop drug dependence problems,” says Austic. “The fact that the peak ages for starting to misuse prescription stimulants are between 16 and 19 should be concerning to those who understand how drug dependence works.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has seen a steady increase in ADHD diagnoses over the years. In 2011, roughly 11 percent of those aged 4 to 17 were diagnosed with ADHD, and symptoms were typically observed around the age of seven. Assumingly, if pre-adolescents are regularly using ADHD medication, then the risk of misuse will be an issue long-before college.

As this large (and impressionable) sector of the population continues using and misusing stimulants, the study’s experts say educational resources and preventive efforts should be made available at a more age-appropriate time.

Additional Reading: Workplace Adderall Abuse: 9 Signs It’s Time to Get Help

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