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The Journal of the American Medical Association

MANKATO — A recent study found childhood rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, have risen significantly over the past two decades.

The report published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, included results on more than 186,000 children and adolescents from 1997 to 2016. The ADHD rate rose from 6.1 to 10.2 percent during the time period.

Further studies could better shed light on why the rise occurred, but researchers noted greater public awareness and increased physician recognition of the symptoms, as well as a reduced stigma surrounding the diagnosis could partly explain it.

While medical professionals in Mankato say the results suggest more children are appropriately being diagnosed, they caution parents against conflating inattentiveness in their children for ADHD.

“Inattentiveness has gotten worse in our society because of phones and electronics and multiple demands for our attention, so you really need to have a good, solid diagnosis,” said Lisa Hardesty, a clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.

The initial step for parents should be determining whether a child’s ADHD symptoms are present across different settings, said Travis Hansen, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mankato Clinic.

“Parents are familiar with their kids in the home settings, but talk with teachers, day care providers,” he said. “Get a feel for what they’re seeing.”

ADHD symptoms, including inattentiveness and impulsiveness, should be evident regardless of the setting. Hansen said it’s not uncommon to hear from patients who suspect they or their child have undiagnosed ADHD.

But, he added, "so many different things I see, especially in psychiatry, can mimic ADHD." It could be anxiety or depression, both of which can go hand-in-hand with ADHD.

What Hansen and Hardesty don't want are people self-diagnosing, or worse, self medicating with Ritalin or Adderall.

“What we get is often patients are frustrated, and we want to do the diagnosis and do it right, but they already looked online and saw all the symptoms and thought it must be ADHD,” Hardesty said.

No blood test can identify ADHD — although it has a strong genetic component — so the best way to diagnosis it is to consult with your physician. Undiagnosed ADHD in children can have lifelong, negative impacts.

Additional research suggests more time spent staring at a screen could even contribute to the symptoms. A study published in JAMA over the summer found teens frequently using smartphones and tablets could be more likely to develop ADHD symptoms. The connection between screen time and ADHD isn’t yet fully understood, but the study seems to support medical professionals’ anecdotal observations about the relation between ADHD and screen time.

Heather Von Bank, chair of the department of family and consumer science at Minnesota State University, said the rise of screen time and ADHD rates among children underscores the need for a more thoughtful approach toward play. Unstructured play time should be emphasized, she said, while screen time should be regulated. 

“If we focus on play as the way children learn social cues, ways to interact with individuals, that’s going to be the key in developing their prefrontal cortex,” she said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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