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Significant rise in ADHD diagnoses in the UK

Image of ADHD

Published: 18 July 2023

The diagnoses and prescriptions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication have increased significantly, according to a new study funded by NIHR.

The research reviewed 7 million individuals aged three to 99 between 2000 and 2018. It used data from the IQVIA Medical Research Data, a UK primary care database.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) found:

  • 35,877 had an ADHD diagnosis
  • 18,518 received prescriptions for ADHD medication
  • a 20-fold increase in ADHD diagnoses
  • a 50-fold increase in ADHD prescriptions in men aged 18-29 (from 0.01% to 0.56%)
  • ADHD diagnoses were about two times higher in the most deprived areas

Findings revealed that ADHD was more commonly diagnosed in children, boys and men. However, the relative increase was largest among adults.

Amongst boys aged 10-16, 1.4% had an ADHD diagnosis and 0.6% had been prescribed ADHD medication in 2000. This had risen to 3.5% and 2.4% respectively in 2018. There was no significant increase in children under five.

Adults diagnosed with ADHD increasing

ADHD symptoms start in childhood, but are increasingly recognised in adults. Symptoms of ADHD include:

  • impulsiveness
  • disorganisation
  • poor time management skills
  • difficulty focusing
  • restlessness

Lead author, Dr Doug McKechnie, UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, who is funded by an NIHR In-Practice Fellowship, said: “ADHD diagnoses and prescriptions for ADHD medication by a GP have become more common over time.

“Whilst ADHD is most likely to be diagnosed in childhood, an increasing number of people are diagnosed for the first time in adulthood. We do not know exactly why this is happening, but it may be that ADHD has become better recognised and diagnosed.”

The research highlighted how ADHD medication is more frequently prescribed. In the NHS, prescriptions start with a referral from a specialist before being handed over to GPs.

Researchers say GPs need to have better support in prescribing and monitoring these medications.

Study limitations

The study only captured ADHD medication prescriptions in NHS primary care and not secondary care. Researchers say this will under-estimate the overall incidence and prevalence of medication usage.

The study period also finished in 2018. Since then, various events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, have had a substantial impact upon mental health services. It is therefore likely that the incidence and prevalence of ADHD in the UK has continued to change between the end of the study and the present date.

Find out more about this research.

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