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Children with ADHD at Risk for Alcohol Problems

Armen Hareyan's picture

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at risk for alcohol abuse or dependence -- as well as other substance-related problems -- as they grow older, new research confirms. Two University of Pittsburgh-led studies show that ADHD is, indeed, a risk factor for alcohol problems, with parental alcoholism and stressful experiences in the family playing an important role.

Results are published in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Children with ADHD are believed to be at risk for alcoholism because of their impulsivity and distractibility, as well as other problems that often accompany ADHD, such as school failure and behavior problems," explained Brooke Molina, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and corresponding author for both studies. "Our studies show that adolescents with ADHD were much more likely to use alcohol than their peers without ADHD."

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In the first of the two studies on age specificity, Dr. Molina and her colleagues interviewed participants in the larger Pittsburgh ADHD Longitudinal Study. Researchers interviewed 364 children diagnosed with ADHD as adolescents (11 to 17 years of age) or as young adults (18 to 28 years of age). Demographically and age-matched individuals without ADHD also were recruited to serve as a comparison. Alcohol use was determined through questionnaires and interviews.

"We found that the children with ADHD were more likely than the comparison group to drink heavily and to have enough problems related to their drinking that they were diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence," said Dr. Molina. "This means that their drinking caused problems such as fights with their parents or friends, a drop in their grades at school or difficulty with controlling the amount of alcohol that they drank."

Drinking problems began around age 15, said Dr. Molina. "The 15-to-17-year-olds with childhood ADHD reported being drunk an average of 14 times in the previous year, versus only 1.8 times for peers in the study who did not have childhood ADHD. Whereas 14 percent of that age group with childhood ADHD were diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence, none of the 15-to-17-year-olds without childhood ADHD had alcohol problems."

Researchers note that it appears that one of the reasons for the past inconsistencies in research is that the ADHD-alcohol relationship does not become solid until at least mid-adolescence. It may be that only a subset of kids with ADHD