Behavioral disinhibition is a trait associated with both ADHD and several genes that affect dopamine signaling. A new study by three American medical researchers set out to examine how these ADHD risk genes – DRD4 (dopamine 4 receptor density), DAT1 (dopamine 1 transporter), and DBH (dopamine beta-hydroxylase) – affect estimated life expectancy in young adulthood.

The method used was a longitudinal study of 131 hyperactive children and 71 matched controls through early adulthood. The original evaluations were done in 1979-1980, when both groups were children in the 4 to 12 age range. They were reevaluated in 1987-1988 as adolescents aged 12 to 20. The next follow-up was in 1992-1996 in early adulthood, aged 19 to 25. The final follow-up was in 1998-2004, as adults aged 24 to 32. All agreed to physical examinations that formed the basis for calculating estimated life expectancy using actuarial tables that factor in the effects of smoking, body mass index, alcohol, and other risk factors on expected longevity. Participants also provided blood samples that enabled gene typing.

For the DAT1 gene, participants who had the homozygous nine-repeat allele (9/9) had a five-year reduction in estimated life expectancy relative to those with the ten-repeat allele (10/10). Those with the intermediate (9/10) configuration had a three-year reduction in estimated life expectancy.

For the DBH Taq1 gene, those with a heterozygous (A1/A2) combination had almost a three-year reduction in estimated life expectancy relative to those with homozygous (A1/A1 or A2/A2) configurations.

For DRD4, on the other hand, no significant differences were found for estimated life expectancy.

In a related study, several background traits were found to be significantly predictive of variance in estimated life expectancy. The largest of these was behavioral disinhibition, followed by verbal IQ, self-rated hostility, and a nonverbal fluency test. But no significant differences were found between any of the gene polymorphisms on any of these four measures, indicating that the present gene associations were independent of the background traits.

The researchers next sought to determine which variables used in the estimated life expectancy calculations were associated with the two significant genes. For DBH, one variable stood out. Those with the A1/A2 heterozygous pairings had almost twice the alcohol consumption of those with homozygous pairings (p = 0.023).

For DAT1, two variables stood out. Overall, the 9/9 pairings smoked two and a half times as much as the 10/10 pairings, with the 9/10 pairings midway between the extremes (p = 0.036). They were also 73 percent more likely to be smokers relative to the 10/10 pairings, and 61 percent more likely relative to the 9/10 pairings. They also had significantly less education than the 10/10 pairings, with the 9/10 pairings again being intermediate (p = 0.027).

An obvious limitation of the study was its small sample size. The authors cautioned, “our findings should be considered quite preliminary and in need of much greater research before being given much weight in the literature or in public policy.”

“With these limitations in mind,” they concluded, “the present study demonstrated that two ADHD risk genes (DBH and DAT1) independently contributed to a reduction in ELE [estimated life expectancy] beyond the second order variables of behavioral disinhibition, IQ, hostility, and nonverbal fluency that contributed in the related study to variation in ELE. The gene polymorphisms seemed to be influencing ELE through their affiliation with first-order or more proximal factors related to ELE such as education, smoking, alcohol use, and possibly exercise.”

Russell A. Barkley, Karen Müller Smith, and Mariellen Fischer, “ADHD risk genes involved in dopamine signaling and metabolism are associated with reduced estimated life expectancy at young adult follow-up in hyperactive and control children,” American Journal of Medical Genetics (2019), DOI: 10.1002/ajmg.b.32711.

Stephen V. Faraone, PhD

About Stephen V. Faraone, PhD

Dr. Faraone is the Principal ADHD Expert for ADHD in Adults. He is Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and is a member of the Board of APSARD, the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders. He is the Principal Investigator for ADHD in and serves on the Advisory Board.