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Docs shouldn't give ADHD drugs to healthy kids

Rachael Rettner


The practice of prescribing stimulant drugs to healthy kids who are looking for a mental boost is not justifiable, and should come to an end, a group of doctors says. 

The American Academy of Neurology released a position statement on the issue out of concern over the rising use of stimulant drugs — used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — in healthy kids.

Over the last two decades, there's been a 20 percent increase in ADHD diagnoses, and a tenfold increase in the production and consumption of ADHD medications. And a 2012 government survey found that between 3 and 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors say they've taken Ritalin or Adderall — both ADHD medications — without a prescription.

Teens reportedly use the drugs, which can boost mental focus, as study aids to cram for tests and get good grades.

Whether doctors are intentionally prescribing ADHD drugs to healthy kids, or whether they mistakenly diagnose the children with ADHD based on children's reports of their own symptoms, is not clear.

Teens may fake symptoms of the behavioral disorder, or parents may lie to doctors for their children to get the drugs. In other cases, doctors might prescribe drugs for "normal" symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating and thinking after hours and hours of work, said Dr. William Graf, a professor of pediatrics and neurology at Yale School of Medicine, and an author of the position paper.

Because these drugs require a prescription, doctors are playing a role in how they end up in the hands of healthy children, either directly or indirectly, Graf said. Therefore, doctors should limit the use of these drugs in kids as much as possible to prevent their abuse.

One way to do this would be to give children a thorough examination before diagnosing ADHD, which is recommended but not always done, he said.

Side effects of ADHD medications can include nervousness, appetite suppression and insomnia. There's also been some suggestion that the drugs increase the risk of heart problems in kids with underlying conditions.

In kids who truly have ADHD, the benefits of drugs may outweigh the side effects. But for those who don't have the condition, the benefit is not as great, and the side effects may not be worth the risks, Graf said.

What's more, the drugs have not been studied in healthy kids, so we don't know what the long-term effects are, Graf  told MyHealthNewsDaily. 

Because children can't always make the best decisions for themselves, doctors have a professional obligation to protect them from misusing drugs that may cause them harm later in life, Graf said.

The position paper is published today (March 13) in the journalNeurology.