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Kids with ADHD at Higher Risk for Substance Use

May 9th, 2018

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a common childhood disorder that makes it difficult for kids to pay attention, focus on tasks, control behavior, and sit still—may also lead to problems with substance use. In findings published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers found that children with ADHD first used drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes at a younger age, escalated their substance use more quickly, and were more likely to regularly smoke marijuana and cigarettes as adults.

Researchers enrolled 579 children diagnosed with ADHD and 258 children without ADHD at multiple sites in the United States and Canada, and asked them to complete a questionnaire up to eight times during a 16-year period from childhood through early adulthood. In the ADHD group, about 58 percent reported using alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and other drugs beginning in adolescence, compared to 42 percent in the group without ADHD. As adults, 33 percent in the ADHD group reported weekly marijuana use, versus 21 percent in the comparison group; the ADHD group also reported double the rate for daily marijuana use (22 vs 11 percent). Cigarette smoking was also doubled in the ADHD group compared to those without ADHD (36 vs 18 percent).

The authors noted that these results suggest a crucial need for clinicians to include early screening and interventions to prevent early substance use among children with ADHD. According to University of Pittsburgh researcher and lead author Brooke Molina, PhD, “We were not surprised to find high numbers of daily cigarette smokers, but we were surprised to discover that so many children with ADHD later used marijuana as adults on a weekly basis.” Molina added that the marijuana use finding is particularly concerning given the increasing availability of cannabis in the United States and that the risk and consequences for children with ADHD needs further study.

Learn more about research studies for kids at our Pitt+Me Child Development Studies page.

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