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Child/Adolescent Health

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Use of stimulant medications to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children has leveled off since 1997

Between 4 and 5 percent of U.S. children suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Stimulant medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines have been used to treat children with symptoms of ADHD for over 30 years. These medications typically curb restlessness and impulsiveness and increase the ability to pay attention and focus on the task at hand. Use of stimulants to treat U.S. youngsters with ADHD increased four-fold between 1987 (0.6 percent) and 1996 (2.4 percent). However, stimulant prescribing for ADHD leveled off from 2 million U.S. children in 1997 (2.7 percent) to 2.2 million (2.9 percent) in 2002, according to a new study.

The overall pattern of use did not change over the 6-year period. By 2002, 4.8 percent of children age 6 to 12 years used stimulants compared with 3.2 percent of those age 13 to 18 and 0.3 percent of children under 6. Predictors of stimulant use included being male, white, under 13 years of age, insured, functionally impaired, and living in the South. For instance, in 2002, use of stimulants was higher in males than in females (4.0 vs. 1.7 percent) and in white (3.6 percent) than in black (2.2 percent) or Hispanic (1.4 percent) children.

However, more girls and black children were prescribed stimulants in 2002 compared with 1997. This suggests that some earlier gender and race differences in stimulant prescribing may be abating, notes Samuel H. Zuvekas, Ph.D., of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, along with researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, Benedetto Vitiello, M.D., and Grayson S. Norquist, M.D., M.S.P.H. Their findings were based on analysis of Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data from 1997-2002.

See "Recent trends in stimulant medication use among U.S. children," by Drs. Zuvekas, Vitiello, and Norquist, in the April 2006 American Journal of Psychiatry 163, pp. 579-585. Reprints (AHRQ Publication No. 06-R063) are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse.

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