According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of privately insured women filling prescriptions for ADHD medicine in the U.S. rose by 344% between 2003 and 2015.
Among women in their late 20s to early 30s, the increase was 700%. While the CDC report mentioned potential concern about ADHD medication used during pregnancy, it acknowledged at least four limitations of this study:
- About 45% of U.S. births are in women with Medicaid coverage, so ADHD medication prevalence estimates might differ between publicly and privately insured women of reproductive age.
- Data are based on outpatient pharmacy claims, yet no information is available on women who paid for prescriptions out-of-pocket or who obtained ADHD medications from someone other than their prescribing physician.
- Although statistics reflect ADHD medications dispensed, no verification exists on whether women took the medication after prescriptions were filled.
- While the analysis focused on women ages 15-44, it did not identify pregnant women or women’s risk for pregnancy.
ADHD in Adults
Although the report did not offer opinions about the reasons for this surge, it’s possible that the incidence rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in women mirrored the increase in prescriptions. The number of ADHD diagnoses skyrocketed 43% between 2003 and 2011, increasing the total number of children with ADHD in the U.S. to 6 million, yet the exact increase among adults was not reported. Worldwide prevalence rates in adults vary between 1.2-7.3%.
The number of adults with ADHD who were diagnosed in childhood or adolescence is unknown and statistics on adult ADHD are sparse in comparison to children. Research shows about 30% of individuals who take ADHD medication continue pharmacologic treatment as adults. A 2016 study theorized that the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), published in May 2013, might increase the diagnosis of adult ADHD. Of course that doesn’t account for the increase in the 10 years prior.
A retrospective analysis uncovered a threefold increase in the prevalence rate of ADHD among adults from 2002-2007. The largest increase was in individuals ages 18-24. While far more males than females were diagnosed, the ratio of females to males increased over time. Moreover, the number of people receiving ADHD medication increased from 78% to 88%.
Types of ADHD Medication
According to the CDC report, the most commonly filled ADHD medications in 2015 among this group were mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall), lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse) and methylphenidate (Ritalin). While all of the drugs with increases were stimulants, the percentage of women prescribed the non-stimulant medication atomoxetine remained the same during this timeframe.
A central nervous system stimulant, Adderall can be addictive and abuse can lead to hallucinations, delusions and psychosis. People who misuse it can become aggressive, paranoid and anxious, and abuse is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, seizures and death.
Like Adderall, this stimulant is prescribed for the treatment of ADHD in adults and children ages 6 and older. It was initially approved in 2007 for treating ADHD in children ages 6-12, with subsequent approval in adults in 2008. Behavioral side effects can include agitation, aggression, mood swings, depression, hallucinations, abnormal thoughts or behavior and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Abuse in adolescents and young adults is tied to the drug’s ability to keep users awake and alert for hours to pull all-nighters. When Ritalin is snorted, its effects mimic those of cocaine, producing a feeling of euphoria. Known behavioral side effects can include psychosis, aggression, hallucinations and unusual behavior.
A 2015 study uncovered an alarming increase in the use of ADHD medications in pregnancy, especially Adderall. This increase and the lack of information regarding potential fetal risks indicate an urgent need for more studies.
Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and ADHD
About 15% of adolescents and young adults with ADHD have a comorbid substance use disorder (SUD), while 11% of individuals with a SUD also meet the criteria for ADHD. ADHD and SUD are both described as disorders of disinhibition, suggesting an underlying shared vulnerability.
Conversely, traits inherent to ADHD, such as impulsivity, are thought to increase the risk of substance abuse. A 2008 study found ADHD was associated with an earlier age of first substance use, more SUD and psychiatric diagnoses, a greater likelihood of attempted suicide and increased hospitalizations.
Gender-specific drug rehab offers care tailored to the unique physical, mental, relational and spiritual needs of women struggling with addiction and co-occurring disorders.