University of British Columbia scientists determined in a new study that the youngest children in a classroom are the most likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and medicated for it. The group argues that the situation is very poorly handled by doctors.
The conclusion was handled after experts in the research group looked at how many of children born in November were diagnosed with ADHD, as opposed to those born in December. In every classroom, the age difference between children can be as high as 11 months.
This creates what investigators refer to as a “relative age effect.” In other words, it means that the youngest children are more likely to be diagnosed with the condition simply because they are not as mature as their older peers.
According to the research, kids born in December (close to the cut-off date for entry into school in British Columbia, Canada) were about 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and treated with heavy medication, than their peers born in January.
This particular group was given Ritalin, Dexedrine, Adderall and Strattera, which are all powerful drugs with adverse side-effects in the long run. Using these substances leads to an increased chance of adverse heart events, sleep disturbances and other similar conditions.
In the paper the team published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers show that 48 percent of the young kids diagnosed with ADHD in any classroom receive heavy medication.
“Our study suggests younger, less mature children are inappropriately being labeled and treated. It is important not to expose children to potential harms from unnecessary diagnosis and use of medications,” explains scientist Richard Morrow.
He holds an appointment as a health research analyst in the UBC Department of Anesthesiology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and was also the lead author of the scientific paper.
In addition to the medical problems associated with taking ADHD medication, there are also self-perception and social issues to consider. Young kids, already at an athletic disadvantage compared to their peers, are more likely to be singled out and picked on after their condition becomes public.
“This study raises interesting questions for clinicians, teachers and parents. We need to ask ourselves what needs to change. For example, attention to relative age of children for their grade and more emphasis on behavior outside the school setting might be needed in the process of assessment,” adds Jane Garland.
She is the clinical head of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at BC’s Children’s Hospital, and also a Clinical Professor in the UBC Department of Psychiatry.