The Nordic countries maintain detailed registers of their inhabitants. This enables researchers to examine patterns over entire nations. An international research team used the Swedish national registers for a prospective cohort study of 2,675,615 persons in the Medical Birth Register born in Sweden over a 27-year period from January 1, 1983 through December 31, 2009. Follow-up was completed in December 2013, with the oldest cohort member aged 31. The mean age at study entry was 6, and the mean at follow-up was 11.
Using personal identification numbers, researchers were able to cross-reference with the National Patient Register and the National Drug Register. From this they determined that 86,670 members of the cohort (3.2 percent) had ADHD, based either on records of clinical diagnosis or of prescription of ADHD drugs. Psychiatric comorbidities were likewise identified in the National Patient Register.
These comorbidities were significantly more prevalent in the ADHD population than in the rest of the cohort. For example, whereas only 2.2% of the non-ADHD group was diagnosed with substance use disorder (SUD), 13.3% of the ADHD group also had SUD, a six-fold difference. For depression it was a seven-fold difference, for schizophrenia a nine-fold difference.
The ADHD group had a significantly higher risk of premature death from all causes than the non-ADHD group, with an adjusted hazard ratio (HR) of 3.94 (95% CI 3.51-4.43). Unintentional injury (36%) and suicide (31%) were the leading causes of death in the ADHD group. Those with ADHD were more than eight times more likely to die by suicide than non-ADHD individuals, and roughly four times more likely to die from unintentional injury.
The vast majority of the increased risk appears to be associated with comorbid psychiatric conditions. Those with ADHD but no diagnosed comorbidities had an adjusted HR of 1.41 (95% CI 1.01-1.97). With a single comorbidity, the HR more than doubled to 3.71 (95% CI 2.88-4.78). With four or more comorbidities, it rose to a staggering 25.22 (95% CI 19.6-32.46).
The comorbid condition with the greatest impact was SUD, which increased the risk eight-fold by comparison with those with only ADHD (HR = 8.01, 95% CI 6.16-10.41). Anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorder increased the risk about fourfold. Bipolar disorder, depression, and eating disorder increased risk roughly two and a half times.
Covariate analysis helped tease out what portion of the risk was associated with ADHD alone versus comorbid conditions. Adjusting for year of birth, sex, birth weight, maternal age at birth, parental educational level, and parental employment status, those with ADHD (including comorbid conditions) were 2.7 times more likely to prematurely die of natural causes than those without. Adjusting for comorbid psychiatric conditions completely eliminated the risk from ADHD alone (HR = 1.01, 95% CI .72-1.42).
Likewise, those with ADHD (including comorbid conditions) were six times as likely to die of unnatural causes. Adjusting for early-onset comorbid disorders (such as conduct disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and intellectual disability) only modestly reduced the HR to 5.3, but further adjusting for later-onset comorbid disorders (including substance use disorder, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorder, and eating disorders) reduced the HR to 1.57 (95% CI 1.35-1.83), and reduced it to insignificance in the case of suicide (HR = 1.13, 95% CI .88-1.45).
Summing up, the lion’s share of the greater risk of premature death in persons with ADHD is attributable to psychiatric comorbidities. Nevertheless, those with ADHD alone still face a 40 percent greater risk than those without ADHD.
The study did not examine effects of ADHD medication, which the authors state “should be analyzed because of documented potential benefits on ADHD symptoms and comorbid disorders.”
The authors concluded, “Among adults, early-onset psychiatric comorbidity contributed substantially to the premature mortality risks due to natural causes. On the other hand, later-onset psychiatric comorbidity, especially SUD, explained a substantial part of the risk for unnatural deaths, including all the risk of suicide deaths and most of the deaths due to unintentional injuries. These results suggest that overall health conditions and risk of psychiatric comorbidity should be evaluated clinically to identify high-risk groups among individuals with ADHD.”
Shihua Sun, MD; Ralf Kuja-Halkola, PhD; Stephen V. Faraone, PhD; Brian M. D’Onofrio, PhD; Søren Dalsgaard, PhD; Zheng Chang, PhD; Henrik Larsson, PhD, “Association of Psychiatric Comorbidity With the Risk of Premature Death Among Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” JAMA Psychiatry doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.1944 Published online August 7, 2019.