Although Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is commonly associated with children, it can last into adulthood for about 30% to 50% of cases. Research also suggests that children with ADHD have a higher risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol as they get older.
People with ADHD tend to be more prone to impulsive behaviors and have trouble focusing or sitting still for extended periods. They become easily distracted and can be forgetful of tasks. The hyperactivity and limited control over impulses can also cause them to interrupt others while talking or other such behaviors, leading to problems socializing and making friends.
Several studies have found a significant connection between ADHD and addiction. For example, ADHD is 5 to 10 times more frequent among people with alcohol use disorder than in the general population. Adults with ADHD account for 25% of patients under treatment for alcohol and substance abuse.
Early alcohol consumption and substance use are considered strong predictors of addiction later in life. Another study found that teenagers with ADHD were 40% more likely to begin drinking alcohol at the mean age of 14.9 years than those without.
Why Does ADHD Increase the Risk of Developing Addiction?
There’s no clear answer to this question, but there are several theories. First of all, researchers have found common genes between people with ADHD and people with alcohol use disorder. Moreover, alcoholism and ADHD tend to run in families, so there’s the genetic factor but also the environmental effect of growing up with an alcoholic parent.
Second of all, ADHD causes issues with the regulation of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. The symptoms of ADHD interfere with executive functions, hampering academic achievement, career prospects, income potential, as well as personal relationships. The addiction might start a form of self-medication to compensate for the unpleasant emotions that result from these issues. You can find out more about the self-medicating and dual diagnosis on the Oro House blog.
Are the Stimulant Medications Prescribed for ADHD Addictive?
Many parents whose children have been diagnosed with ADHD are afraid to let them take prescribed stimulants because they don’t want them to get addicted. Medications like Adderall and Ritalin produce their effects by raising dopamine levels in the brain, which helps increase focus and reduce hyperactivity.
Dopamine also affects mood, and an increase in dopamine makes people feel good. In some cases, it can even lead to a “high” sensation. Because many addictive drugs such as cocaine also increase dopamine levels, and dopamine has a strong impact on the brain’s reward system, there are concerns that ADHD stimulants might lead to addiction in a similar way.
There are also reports showing that some people take ADHD stimulants as recreational drugs, and this abuse can lead to addiction. However, they are not taking the medication as prescribed so that they can enhance the effects, and this makes a big difference.
One of the factors used to determine the addictive potential of a drug is how fast it raises dopamine levels – faster means greater potential for abuse. Ritalin, when taken as prescribed, will raise dopamine levels in about an hour. In contrast, cocaine raises dopamine levels in a few seconds. Having said that, in large doses and taken through other methods, Ritalin can also raise dopamine levels much faster. If there is a risk that the person with ADHD might take their medication in a way that might lead to addiction, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get treatment. Their doctor can also prescribe non-stimulant medications for ADHD.