Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses seemed to be a relic of the 1990s, and it was believed impatient teachers, helicopter parents and the pediatricians that enable them had moved onto other things.

Not so, instead 12 percent of U.S. children and teens had an ADHD diagnosis in 2011, up 43 percent since 2003, The analysis by Sean D. Cleary, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at George Washington University suggests that 5.8 million U.S. children ages 5 to 17 now have this diagnosis. 

Children with ADHD may have trouble with paying attention in class or at home and they might also be impulsive or prone to making careless mistakes. They can also be forgetful and, if nothing is done, the condition can lead to difficulties at school, at home and in social situations, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   Scholars looked at data taken from the National Survey of Children's Health, a nationally representative cross-sectional survey that collected information on the health of children aged 17 and younger. They focused on a question in the survey that asked parents if a doctor or another health care provider had told them that their child had ADHD. The researchers also kept track of race/ethnicity and whether the children were boys or girls and other relevant sociodemographic factors that have previously been found to be related to ADHD diagnosis. 

The research also uncovered a surprising increase in ADHD among girls during the study time frame. "We found the parent-reported prevalence for girls diagnosed with ADHD rose from 4.3 percent in 2003 to 7.3 percent in 2011. That's an increase of 55 percent over an eight year period," Cleary says, adding: "Traditionally, boys have been more likely to get a diagnosis of ADHD."  

The report was based on data sponsored by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a National Children's Survey from 2003-2011. Cleary and his co-author Kevin P. Collins of Mathematica Policy Research mined the data looking for trends in parent-reported prevalence of ADHD.

"We found rising rates of ADHD overall and very sharp jumps in certain subgroups," Cleary said, adding that for adolescents the diagnosis jumped by 52 percent since 2003. "Parents should be made aware of the findings in case they have a child or teenager that should be evaluated for the disorder, which can persist into adulthood."

This study was not designed to look at the underlying reasons for such changes in prevalence, Cleary said. The reported increase in the diagnosis could be a true increase in the number of ADHD diagnoses or it could be the result of a tendency to over-diagnose the condition. Additional research will need to be done to find out why there has been a rise in the diagnosis, with special attention being paid to certain groups, Cleary said.

Published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry