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Number of women on ADHD meds soars

While more boys than girls are treated for ADHD, a new report shows that among adults, the numbers have flipped. Women’s use of medications for the condition has soared in the past decade, surpassing that of men.

From 2001 to 2010, the number of American women ages 20 to 44 who took ADHD drugs skyrocketed more than 250 percent, according to the report from Medco Health Solutions. Researchers analyzed trends in the use of mental health medications among about 2.5 million insured Americans.

Among all 20- to 44-year-olds, about one in 50 took ADHD medications in 2010 — 1.9 percent of women, and 1.8 percent of men, whose use increased more than 150 percent from 2001 to 2010. One factor for the rise in adults taking ADHD drugs might be that all five medications indicated for treating the condition have been approved since 2001.

Since ADHD doesn’t pop up all of a sudden in adulthood, it's likely that women who started taking meds in the past decade flew under the radar until they became adults, says Dr. Lenard Adler, director of the Psychiatry and Neurology Adult ADHD Program at the New York University School of Medicine.

That’s because girls are less likely than boys to exhibit the “H”—for hyperactivity—in ADHD, so boys with the condition are more likely to be noticed, says Adler, who was not involved with the Medco report. But as children grow into adulthood, he says, the “attention deficit” component of ADHD becomes more prominent, because grown-ups have a lot more to keep track of.

The girls whose ADHD had gone unrecognized, chalked up to laziness or lack of motivation in school, grow into women who stumble when they encounter the real world of work and family. They can’t hold jobs, and, because they are so disorganized, they pay their bills late, if at all, lose track of appointments and misplace their kids’ school permission slips.

Parenthood often leads to adults finally getting an ADHD diagnosis, Adler says. “Many times for a parent, what will bring them in to be diagnosed is they have a child who’s been diagnosed.” The parents might recognize that their child’s symptoms are ones they themselves have dealt with for years.

When a child is diagnosed with ADHD, he says, there’s a 30 percent to 40 percent chance that a parent has it, too. Of those parents, the moms are more likely to seek professional help than the dads, explains Russell Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina who’s long studied ADHD in adults. And in the last couple of years, Barkley says, he’s been interviewed for a number of articles about ADHD in women, which have probably heightened awareness.

Adler says he’s glad the data show more women are seeking treatment, but since 4.5 percent of adults are thought to have ADHD, it's clear that less than half are getting help. “There’s a large group out there still not being treated,” he says.