Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood disorders, but just how prevalent is it? A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated the current trends in ADHD diagnosis and treatment through a series of surveys. They found an increase in both the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD and the number of children receiving medication to treat ADHD.

The examined trends from the National Survey of Children’s Health, gathering data from parent reports in the 2003-04, 2007-08, and 2011-12 school years. The data were used to calculate estimates about ADHD prevalence in children aged four to 17 in the United States.

Overall, the results showed an increase in the rate of diagnosis from 2003 to 2011. During that period, two million more children in the United States were diagnosed with ADHD, bringing the current level of children diagnosed by a health care provider to 6.4 million (11% four to 17 year-olds in the US), representing a 42% increase over the eight year period. The age of diagnosis is trending younger; half of children diagnosed with ADHD were done so by age six. Children with more severe ADHD received a diagnosis even earlier—half of children with more severe ADHD were diagnosed by around age four.

Between the initial and most recent surveys, one million more children were reported as receiving prescription drug treatments for ADHD, with approximately 3.5 million children (6% of all American children aged four to 17) taking prescription drugs to treat the disorder. Nearly one in seven children with a current ADHD diagnosis were taking medication to treat it.

Despite the significant prevalence of children receiving medication, 18% of children with ADHD were reported as not receiving any treatment, such as counseling or medication, for their ADHD in 2011-12. Furthermore, diagnostic rates vary from state to state. While 15% of children were diagnosed with ADHD in Kentucky and Arkansas, only four percent were in Nevada.

According to the lead author of the study, Susanna Visser of the CDC, the findings regarding the prevalence of medicative treatments suggest “that there area a large number of young children who could benefit from the early initiations of behavioral therapy, which is recommended as the first-line treatment for preschool children with ADHD.”

This research is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.

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