ADHD Medication Lowers Risk of Substance Abuse

Health Writer

Many people worry that using medications for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), especially stimulant medications, which are controlled substances, can lead to later substance abuse. A recent study shows the opposite is true. Using medications to treat ADHD symptoms significantly reduced the risk of substance abuse in both teens and adults with ADHD.

There is good reason to worry about substance abuse if you or your family member has ADHD. Individuals with ADHD have a higher risk of substance abuse. A report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 indicated that those with ADHD were about twice as likely as those without ADHD to meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence and twice as likely to develop dependence on cocaine.

According to the report: “ADHD is associated with an earlier age at onset of substance abuse and a higher likelihood of use of a variety of substances.” The reasons why aren’t as clear. The authors of the report indicate that executive functioning deficits, poor decision making, and impulsivity might all play a role.

But there could also be biologic reasons. People living with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine in their brains and substances such as nicotine, alcohol, opiates, and marijuana increase dopamine levels. Using these substances could be a form of self-medication.

Substance abuse can lead to physical, emotional, family, financial, and academic problems. In the short term, substance abuse might lead to changes in mood, appetite, sleep patterns, heart rate, and blood pressure according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In some cases, it can lead to death. Long-term problems can include heart or lung disease, brain damage, HIV/AIDs, and addiction. Changes in behavior also cause academic, employment, and family problems.

Past studies have found that treating ADHD with medication can help lower this risk, but some people also worry about the inherent risks that come with this treatment. Stimulant medications have a high risk of abuse. For example, it could lead to using illicit drugs or there is a potential for selling the medications to others. The recent study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found instead the risk of later substance abuse decreased by 35 percent in men and 31 percent in women.

The researchers looked at anonymous health care data of people who had employer-based insurance. Out of 146 million people, about 3 million had ADHD. They then narrowed down those who had periods of time when they weren’t prescribed medication and periods when they were. Substance-abuse treatment was more likely to occur during times when people were not taking ADHD medications. Dr. Patrick Quinn, who led the study stated: “This and other recent studies find that the risk of such problems is lower during and after periods of use of these (ADHD) medications.”

Other studies have found additional benefits of being on medication to treat ADHD. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that ADHD medication was associated with a lower risk of motor vehicle accidents.

The authors of the study believe that this information can help parents and physicians who are making decisions on whether to try medication for themselves or their children. For those who worry that taking medication from an early age might lead to later substance abuse, this study might help ease their minds.

See more helpful articles:

Is Medication Right for Your Child?

Teens, Behind the Wheel with ADHD

What to Do When Teens with ADHD Want to Stop Using Medication

Should You Stop Taking ADHD Meds?

Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before Beginning Medication for ADHD