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New research fuels skepticism (and questions) about those ADHD diagnoses

BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

August 17, 2010

Suspicion has long existed that maybe a significant percentage of kids diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder were really just livelier than was warranted for a classroom environment. Or, rather, immature.

As staff writer Melissa Healy noted about a previous study detailed in the article Growing up with, and out of, ADHD:
 "Researchers found it is the can't-sit-still kids -- the stereotype of the 'ADHD generation' -- who are most likely to mature out of the disease. Among those with persistent ADHD, they also found, half have problems with cognitive skills that are key to success in adulthood, but half have no such deficits."

Now research backing up such suspicion is growing, beginning to solidify into a less-than-reassuring picture about how kids have been assessed. And labeled. And treated.

A new study out of North Carolina State University has found significant differences in diagnoses among children with similar birth dates and different kindergarten start times. That  research, which will be published soon in the Journal of Health Economics, is summed up in the university's news release. Also just released is related research from Michigan State University finding that nearly 1 million kids may have been misdiagnosed because of age.

Here's a nice USA Today article, Youngest in class get ADHD label, that sums up both studies.

It can be difficult to distinguish immaturity from ADD and ADHD. Here's an ADD/ADHD symptom guide from HelpGuide.org. (This one is for kids; there's a separate one for adults.) 

And this article from Parenting, ADHD or Immaturity?, by Dr. William Sears, sums up the dilemma and offers a practical suggestion for parents trying to sort it all out.

He writes: "Keep a diary of these big four characteristics of ADHD and see how your child does over time. With immaturity, you will notice steady improvement as your child learns to settle into a school routine. On the other hand, true ADHD, if left undiagnosed and untreated, can become worse with time, resulting in your child developing a poor attitude about learning."

Obviously an accurate diagnosis is key for kids with ADD/ADHD. But the new research raises questions about the effect on kids who don't have the conditions -- but are told they do.

While pondering such questions, take a look at the ADHD drug treatment options, as detailed by Consumer Reports. It begins:

"The drugs usually prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are generally effective and safe. Most children and teenagers (60% to 80%) who take them become less hyperactive and impulsive, are better able to focus, and are less disruptive at home and school. However, there is no good evidence showing these benefits last for longer than two years."

Expect a harder look in the years to come about whether kids have ADD/ADHD -- or whether they're just young.

-- Tami Dennis / Los Angeles Times

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