ADHD often over-diagnosed, especially among boys

By Amy Wimmer Schwarb • Published: August 1st, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Nearly one out of every five American high school boys has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

That fact was revealed recently in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But does it suggest an alarming medical crisis … or a false alarm?

ADHD is believed to result from abnormal chemical levels in the brain, and the afflicted lack impulse control and attention skills. Because no medical test can flag it, the condition is diagnosed through discussions with patients, their parents and teachers.

Additionally, the medications that treat ADHD can improve concentration and quell bad behavior. And therein lies the temptation to overuse them: ADHD is a tricky diagnosis, and the pills that ease its symptoms typically make children more compliant and studious.

Together, those traits create a medical cocktail for over-diagnosis.

In the past decade, the number of children ages 4 to 17 who have been tagged with the disorder has increased by 41 percent.

Boys, it seems, are particularly prone to ADHD — or at least a diagnosis of it. Nineteen percent of high school-age boys have been labeled with the disorder, and just 10 percent of the girls.

In one recent German study, psychologists and psychotherapists were presented with anecdotes describing children’s behavior. Not only did the experts diagnose ADHD in children who didn’t actually meet the clinical requirements, they were also more likely to tag children with ADHD if they had male names.

The American Psychiatric Association is expected to reconsider the disorder’s clinical definition. But instead of narrowing the standards for diagnosis, the group may broaden them. And a diagnosis of ADHD could become even easier.

Worried about your own child? Talk to your doctor or seek a second opinion. After all, a parent is a child’s best advocate.