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updated 9/28/2011 2:47:31 PM ET 2011-09-28T18:47:31

The use of prescription stimulants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in kids has increased steadily over the last decade, according to a new study.

Between 1996 and 2008, the percentage of U.S. children taking stimulant ADHD medications rose from 2.4  to 3.5 percent — an increase of a half million kids.

The rise was due mainly to an increase in use of these medications among teens, the researchers said.

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"In the past, ADHD was primarily a concern of children in elementary school and middle school," said study researcher Dr. Benedetto Vitiello, of the National Institute of Mental Health.

"This continuous increase among teens likely reflects a recent realization that ADHD often persists as children age. They do not always grow out of their symptoms," Vitiello said.

In addition, more children have been diagnosed with ADHD in recent years.

The new findings cannot tell us whether ADHD medications are being over-prescribed in kids, as some experts have claimed, Vitiello said. But the decision to treat ADHD with stimulants should be made on an individual basis, and each child should be monitored to see how he responds to the drugs, Vitiello said.

ADHD medications

Previous work showed that between 1987 and 1997, the percentage of children receiving ADHD stimulant medications increased steeply, from 0.6 to 2.7 percent.

To see how prescriptions of stimulants have changed since then, Vitiello and colleagues examined data from a nationally representative survey of U.S. households sponsored by the government's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The survey showed that between 1996 and 2008, the number of children receiving ADHD medications rose steadily, from 1.8 million to 2.3 million. Among 13- to 18-year-olds, stimulant use increased from 2.3 to 4.9 percent over the study period.

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Stimulant use was highest among 6- to 12-year-olds. In 2008, about 5.1 percent of children in this age group were prescribed stimulants. Only about 0.1 percent of preschoolers were prescribed stimulants, the survey showed. This suggests use of ADHD drugs among very young children is disfavored, the researchers said.

Most kids don't get stimulants

Despite the increase in stimulant use, most children with ADHD are not treated with these drugs, the researchers said. In 2007, about 9.5 percent of children in the United States were diagnosed with ADHD.

Children with more severe symptoms are more likely to be taking stimulants, the researchers said. But those with milder symptoms may receive non-drug treatments, including behavioral therapies.

The study is published today (Sept. 28) in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner. Find us on Facebook.

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