ADHD Blog Post

ADHD is Underdiagnosed, to Varying Degrees, Among Adults of Different Ethnicities, Ages, and Education Levels in the U.S.

A cohort study looked at over five million adults and over 850,000 children between the ages of five and eleven who received care at Kaiser Permanente Northern California during the ten-year period from the beginning of 2007 through the end of 2016. At any given time, KPNC serves roughly four million persons. It is representative of the population of the region, except for the highest and lowest income strata.

Among adults rates of ADHD diagnosis rose from 0.43% to 0.96%. Among children the diagnosis rates rose from 2.96% to 3.74%, ending up almost four times as high as for adults.

Non-Hispanic whites had the highest adult rates throughout, increasing from 0.67% in 2007 to 1.42% in 2016. American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) had the second highest rates, rising from 0.56% to 1.14%. Blacks and Hispanics had roughly comparable rates of diagnosis, the former rising from 0.22% to 0.69%, the latter from 0.25% to 0.65%. The lowest rates were among Asians (rising from 0.11% to 0.35%) and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders (increasing from 0.11% to 0.39%).

Odds of diagnosis dropped steeply with age among adults. Relative to 18-24-year-olds, 25-34-year-olds were 1/6th less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, 35-44-year-olds 1/3rd less likely, 45-54-year-olds less than half as likely, 55-64-year-olds less than a quarter as likely, and those over 65 about a twentieth as likely. This is consistent with other studies reporting and age dependent decline in the diagnosis.

Adults with the highest levels of education were twice as likely to be diagnosed as those with the lowest levels. But variations in median household income had almost no effect. Women were marginally less likely to be diagnosed than men.

ADHD is associated with some other psychiatric disorders. Compared with normally developing adults, and adjusted for confounders, those with ADHD were five times as likely to have an eating disorder, over four times as likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression, more than twice as likely to suffer from anxiety, but only slightly more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

The authors speculate that rising rates of diagnosis “could reflect increasing recognition of ADHD in adults by physicians and other clinicians as well as growing public awareness of ADHD during the decade under study.” Turning to the strong differences among ethnicities, they note, “Racial/ethnic differences could also reflect differential rates of treatment seeking or access to care. … Racial/ethnic background is known to play an important role in opinions on mental health services, health care utilization, and physician preferences. In addition, rates of diagnosis- seeking to obtain stimulant medication for nonmedical use may be more common among white vs nonwhite patients.” They conclude, “greater consideration must be placed on cultural influences on health care seeking and delivery, along with an increased understanding of the various social, psychological, and biological differences among races/ethnicities as well as culturally sensitive approaches to identify and treat ADHD in the total population.”

But the main take home message of this work is that most cases of ADHD in adults are not being diagnosed by clinicians. We know from population studies, worldwide, that about three percent of adults suffer from the disorder. This study found that less than 1 percent are diagnosed by their doctors. Clearly, more education is needed to teach clinicians how to identify, diagnose and treat ADHD in adults.


Winston Chung, MD, MS; Sheng-Fang Jiang, MS; Diana Paksarian, MPH, PhD; Aki Nikolaidis, PhD; F. Xavier Castellanos, MD; Kathleen R. Merikangas, PhD; Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD, “Trends in the Prevalence and Incidence of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Among Adults and Children of Different Racial and Ethnic Groups,” JAMA Network Open (2019) 2(11): e1914344. DOI:10.1521/adhd.2019.27.4.8.