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Stimulants Used to Treat ADHD Influence BMI Growth Patterns Through Childhood With a BMI Rebound in Late Adolescence


ADHD Stimulant Treatment Initially Slowed BMI Growth
Findings Are First to Link Childhood ADHD Treatment to Possible Later Obesity

A new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that children treated with stimulants for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experienced slower body mass index (BMI) growth than their undiagnosed or untreated peers, followed by a rapid rebound of BMI that exceeded that of children with no history of ADHD or stimulant use and that could continue to obesity.

The study, thought to be the most comprehensive analysis of ADHD and stimulant use in children to date, found that the earlier the medication began, and the longer the medication was taken, the slower the BMI growth in earlier childhood but the more rapid the BMI rebound in late adolescence, typically after discontinuation of medication. Researchers concluded that stimulant use, and not a diagnosis of ADHD, was associated with higher BMI and obesity. The study was published in Pediatrics.

“Our findings should motivate greater attention to the possibility that longer-term stimulant use plays a role in the development of obesity in children,” said Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, Epidemiology, and Medicine at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “Given the dramatic rise in ADHD diagnosis and stimulant treatment for it in recent decades, this is an interesting avenue of research regarding the childhood obesity epidemic, because the rises in each of these roughly parallel one another.”

Previous research has found substantial evidence that stimulant use to treat ADHD is associated with growth deficits, and some evidence of growth delays. However, the reported associations of ADHD with obesity in both childhood and adulthood was paradoxical and somewhat unexplained. The results of this study suggest it is likely due to the strong influence that stimulants have on BMI growth, with delays in early childhood and a strong rebound in late adolescence. The study also found longitudinal evidence that unmedicated ADHD is associated with higher BMIs, but these effects were small.

ADHD is one of the most common pediatric disorders, with a 9% prevalence among children in the U.S., and ADHD medication is the second most prescribed treatment among children. Over the past 30 years, treatment for ADHD with stimulants has increased rapidly. From 2007 to 2010, 4.2.% of children under age 18 had been prescribed stimulants in the past 30 days, more than five times the amount prescribed to the same-aged children between 1988 and 1984.

The study analyzed the electronic health records of 163,820 children, ages 3 to 18, in the Geisinger Health System, a Pennsylvania-based integrated health services organization. The research geographic area included 37 counties in central and northeastern Pennsylvania. There were an equal number of boys and girls. Nearly 7% -- 11,080, or 6.8% -- had an order for stimulants. (13,789, or 8.4%, received a diagnosis of ADHD. A total of 15,473 were prescribed stimulants, some for other reasons.) There were 201,854 orders for the ADHD medications used in the analysis. The median age at first stimulant use was 8.5 years. Median use was 183 days, with 50% of children taking stimulants for less than 6 months and 50% of children for more than 6 months.

The researchers compared the BMI trajectories of those who had never had a diagnosis or prescription (the “controls”) with three groups: 1.) those with a diagnosis but no stimulant prescription; 2.) those with orders for stimulants without an ADHD diagnosis and 3.) those with both an ADHD diagnosis and stimulant orders.

Those in group 3 had slower rates of BMI growth in early childhood, with more rapid rates during adolescence that eventually exceeded those of the controls. Those with a diagnosis of ADHD but no stimulant orders had more rapid BMI growth after age 10 versus the controls, but the effects were small.

“Stimulant use was strongly implicated,” said Dr. Schwartz. “The earlier stimulants were started and the longer they were used, the stronger was their influence on the degree of both the delayed BMI growth in early childhood and the rebound BMI growth in late adolescence. This is an important unintended consequence of stimulant use in childhood.”

Atttention Deficit Disorder, Stimulant Use, and Childhood Body Mass Index Trajectory” was written by Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, Lisa Bailey-Davis, DEd, RD, Karen Bandeen-Roche, PhD, Jonathan Pollak, Annemarie G. Hirsch, PhD, MPH, MPP, Claudia Nau, PhD, Ann Y. Liu, PhD, and Thomas A. Glass, PhD.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, Grant HD-070725.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health media contact: Susan Sperry at 410-955-6919 or