Study finds that ADHD medication reduces risk of drug abuse for people with ADHD

You may have heard talk about medication for ADHD being a “gateway drug.” In other words, that even proper use of these medicines could put kids at risk for substance abuse later on. A 2017 study of almost 3 million ADHD patients may put this concern to rest.

The study found that taking ADHD medication actually reduces the risk of substance abuse for people with ADHD. The risk is lowered even more for male patients than for female patients.

The study appears in the American Journal of Psychiatry, and funding came from the National Institute of Mental Health and from other government grants. Ten authors worked on the study. Three have worked in the past for drug companies, but the others have not.

The researchers looked at a large sample of people with ADHD who’d gone to an emergency room. (The patients were anonymous.) These ER visits took place between 2005 and 2014. The database included about 1.6 million male patients and 1.4 million female patients. The patients were all 13 or older, and the average age was 25.

Researchers could see which patients had taken ADHD medication. They could also see which patients had visited the emergency room because of substance abuse issues. They analyzed this data for any connections.

Understood experts Nelson Dorta and Laura Tagliareni reviewed the study. Both are pediatric neuropsychologists who work with children with ADHD. Here’s what you need to know.

Key findings

People with ADHD are at higher risk for drug abuse than people who don’t have ADHD. This study confirmed that fact. But it also found that taking medication greatly reduced that risk.

The study compared ADHD patients who have used medication with ADHD patients who haven’t. Researchers found that taking ADHD drugs cut the risk of ER visits for drug abuse by 35 percent for men. For women, medication reduced the risk by 31 percent.

Even after stopping medication, patients who had once taken it were less likely to abuse drugs than those who had never taken medication. This effect, however, faded with time.

Key takeaways for parents

This is a large reliable study, according to both Dorta and Tagliareni.

“It’s consistent with several recent studies showing that ADHD medication does not increase substance abuse risk,” says Dorta. Staying on medication during teen and young adult years, he adds, can reduce other risky behavior as well, like driving accidents.

Tagliareni agrees: “The study appears to show good evidence that there’s a protective factor when people with ADHD take medication.”

Parents should be cautious, however, when looking at studies, she adds. “There are a lot of unknown factors, like a patient’s history and unique needs, that aren’t reflected in a big study.”

Whether to give your child ADHD medication is a very personal decision. But most experts agree that it’s the most effective treatment for the majority of kids with ADHD.

Learn more about how ADHD medication works in the brain. Learn about the importance of fine-tuning medication for your child. And read up on alternative treatments for ADHD.

Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.


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