America's problem with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children has been no secret. But up to now, experts believed the problem was contained to 3 percent to, at most, 7 percent of children.
A new study, however, is raising alarms that the problem is far greater than previously believed. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the number of school-age children who have received an ADHD medical diagnosis is now up to 11 percent. Among high school boys, the number is nearly 1 in 5 students.
While the problem still appears less prevalent in girls, the number of those diagnosed continues to climb. Now 10 percent of high school-age girls have been diagnosed with ADHD.
The numbers underscore the increased need for studies of what's causing this increase in attention problems and how best to treat it.
At the same time, the study has triggered renewed debate about whether the problem of ADHD is overdiagnosis.
Both can be true.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 6.4 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 have received a diagnosis of ADHD at some point in their lives. That marks a 53 percent jump in the past decade alone.
Why? It's not clear. But what is evident is that more children are being treated with drugs as a result.
Sales of stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin have more than doubled from $4 billion in 2007 to $9 billion in 2012, according to IMS Health, a health care information company.
The CDC study shows that two-thirds of children who have been diagnosed were treated with stimulant medications. These can heighten attention, but they also come with severe side effects ranging from weight loss and suppressed growth to addiction and even psychosis.
We don't doubt that, as some health care professionals contend, many parents are also pressuring doctors to help with their child's problems in school by giving them an ADHD diagnosis — and a prescription for stimulant medications.
The problem is the temptation to pursue this course is about to get a little stronger.
According to the New York Times, the American Psychiatric Association is changing the definition of ADHD in a way that will make it easier for people to receive the diagnosis and treatment. For example, the new standard, set to be released next month, would require that ADHD symptoms merely "impact" the individual's daily activities, rather than cause "impairment," as is the current guideline.
The association is hoping that the new guidelines will clarify that ADHD is not just a children's affliction. But in the process it runs the risk of exacerbating the trend of overdiagnosis, while diminishing the real impacts — and the need for more research — on those for whom ADHD is a true impairment.
Certainly none of this is helped by an education system that seems to base its definition of academic success on how well young grade school children do sitting quietly at their desks taking standardized tests.
All the same, parents and doctors need to resist the temptation to resort to an ADHD diagnosis — and the mental steroids that come with it — for every fidgety fourth-grader. There's more to a child than just keeping still in class. And there's far more to be learned about this mental dilemma before concluding that pharmaceuticals are the best solution.