Characterized by hyperactivity, inattention and impulsiveness, ADHD is often treated with medications and behavioral therapy. Because its diagnosis relies largely on the symptoms patients report to their doctors, it’s hard to know for sure how many people truly need such medications.
According to the new CDC report, the number of women in the U.S. who take ADHD drugs quadrupled in the 12 years from 2003 to 2015 among women aged 15 to 44, despite the fact that these drugs have been linked to birth defects and fetal death. The CDC called the spike a “public health concern given the high percentage of unintended pregnancies.”
In 2003, 0.9 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 had filled a prescription for ADHD medication; by 2015, this figure had risen to 4 percent. In the years from 2003 to 2011, ADHD diagnoses in children climbed by 42 percent.
A particularly steep jump was seen in the age range of 25 to 29, where women filled 700 percent more prescriptions for ADHD drugs in 2015 than they did in 2003.
There are two main categories of ADHD medication. The first is stimulants, like Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse, and the other is non-stimulants like Strattera. The stimulants are further categorized as either amphetamines (Adderall) or methylphenidates (Concerta and Ritalin).
While some explain this rise in prescriptions by the fact that young women tend to be diagnosed with ADHD later in life than young men, there is a much bigger factor at play: many women use ADHD drugs to lose weight. That’s because drugs like Adderall cause you to lose your appetite, making the pounds fly off rather easily.
Some young women start taking these medications in college to help focus when studying for exams – abuse on college campuses is rife – and the weight loss side effects cause them to keep taking them long after they’ve earned their diploma.
Los Angeles psychiatrist Charles Sophy told NBC News that it’s not uncommon for young patients to come in and ask for Adderall by name. He says that many who claim to need it for ADHD really want it for weight loss, something he can easily identify when he suggests they take a different ADHD med instead and they start making a case for why they need Adderall specifically.
The CDC is calling for caution because of the potential dangers of these drugs to a woman’s unborn child. Adderall is related to crystal meth, so it’s hardly surprising that it can cause so much damage to a fetus.
A recent study of pregnant women found a link between ADHD methylphenidate drugs and heart defects. That study, which was published in JAMA Psychiatry, found a 28 percent rise in the prevalence of cardiac malformations in babies who had been exposed to the stimulant during the first trimester of pregnancy.
There could well also be risks we aren’t aware of yet given the fact that many clinical trials for ADHD drugs do not use pregnant women as test subjects for ethical reasons.
Whether it’s a legitimate rise in people who are experiencing the classic symptoms of ADHD or a surge in women hoping to look slim in today’s social media-obsessed society, the fact remains that far too many women are taking these drugs without considering the risks.