Databyte: Paying Attention to the Rise in A.D.H.D.

Published on April 17, 2013 by Dana March

Recently, the New York Times analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control (C.D.C.), reporting that diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.) in children ages four through 17 are on the rise.

Data collected in the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) in 2011-12 show that approximately 11 percent of all children have had a diagnosis of A.D.H.D.  The prevalence of A.D.H.D. in boys is approximately twice that of girls.

Diagnoses are linked to age as well as gender. According to the 2011-12 NSCH data, nearly 20 percent of boys ages 14 to 17 are diagnosed with A.D.H.D.

These figures are high—indeed, incredible to some experts. “There’s no way that one in five high-school boys has A.D.H.D.,” James Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Florida International University, told the New York Times.

The C.D.C. has assembled survey data over the years that address A.D.H.D., including the NSHC and the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Both collect nationally representative data via phone interviews. Regardless of the data source, and specific age-gender associations observed in the data, the overall trend is clear. The prevalence of A.D.H.D. diagnoses has increased substantially over time.

What remains unclear, however, is why.

Dr. William Graf, a professor of pediatrics and neurology at Yale School of Medicine speculated on NPR, “[I]t could be that kids are actually changing, and there is actually more ADHD out there. But most people probably don’t believe that. Kids are spending more time in front of their computers, and they might be exercising less than in the past. Those are probably true. But whether or not that translates to a diagnosis of ADHD is less clear.”

Ultimately, Dr. Graf offered another explanation. “[T]here’s a lot of surveillance for this, so people are looking for it. There’s greater awareness and acceptance of the disorder and in part because the pharma industry has direct-to-consumer advertising, and they’ve succeeded in selling this.”

Given the increase over time in prescriptions for A.D.H.D. medications, which have the potential for abuse and/or misuse for performance optimization, as well as the alarming shortage of A.D.H.D. medications for those who legitimately need them, the rise in A.D.H.D. diagnoses is certainly a population-level phenomenon worth paying attention to.

Dana March
Dana March, Editor-in-Chief of the2x2project, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Her research addresses the ways in which our social lives and where we live shape population health and how we respond to interventions. She has particular interests in urbanization and the social fault lines of health, like race and class. March has written for Newsweek, USA Todayand her work has been featured in Scientific American. She was a 2014-15 Public Voices Fellow at Columbia University Medical Center, and has served as an expert commentator for CBS Morning News, Al Jazeera America, and WNYC. Follow her on Twitter @Dana_March. Email her at

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I was interested in knowing the prevalence of ADHD in population greater than 18y. Will these kids continue to face the consequences of ADHD throughout their lifetime?

    Great question. Recently, the spotlight has been on children and adolescents, but one study published in 2006 ( suggests that the burden of ADHD in adults is about half that in kids. Recent research ( shows that about a third of people diagnosed with ADHD as kids still have the diagnosis in their late twenties. If the rise in ADHD over time is real, and not inflated (e.g. as a result of people simply being more aware of these issues), then we might expect problems to persist in some form. In addition, ADHD has been associated with other psychiatric symptoms and disorders, such as depression and anxiety. It’s worth keeping an eye on!

      Thank you DANAMARCH for sharing that useful article. There was a recent TEDXCalTech talk by The Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel who stressed that we need support research that will help us understand, treat and even prevent mental disorders. We have definitely made significant progress understanding heart disease, ALL, Stroke and AIDS but we tend to neglect Brain related disorders.

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