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.”

REFERENCES:
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.

Anthony_L_Rostain_MD_MA_-_ADHD_in_Adults
Let me tell you about a patient of mine named James who is 27 years old and has had a history of some serious substance abuse problems. Now James was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, and around middle school decided he didn’t want to take medications anymore. Beginning in late middle school and early high school he started experimenting with marijuana and alcohol, and eventually began to use other substances like cocaine, and finally, by the time he was finishing high school – and he barely graduated – James was using prescription opiates.

After high school he worked for a few years as a janitor, but this addiction to OxyContin got the better of him. He finally was in an accident, got a DUI, and was court mandated for treatment; and they discovered that he not only had an alcohol abuse problem, he also had marijuana and opiate addition. For this he was given the diagnosis of polysubstance abuse and was started in an outpatient treatment in our facility.

So James was started on suboxone to help him withdraw from opiates, and he was also started on citalopram because he was complaining of depression; and he was able to maintain sobriety, but he had a real tough time concentrating and getting simple things done. He wasn’t completing simple tasks around the house. He tried to go back to work and found it very difficult to stay focused on his job duties, and was reprimanded for coming in late.

So as a result, we then were asked to consult with, and lo and behold, we realized that, even though he was being treated for addition, he still had the ADHD that plagued him as a child. So we added OROS methylphenidate, and we began having him come for weekly cognitive behavioral therapy sessions in which he relearned what ADHD really is for someone his age, and where we began to help him overcome some of his negative attitudes about learning routines and doing things that required mental effort.

ADHD Success Story 5 - James and Substance Abuse yDO39l
James had dreams, wanted to do something with his life, but had always avoided them and had turned to substances to help him with things that made him anxious like social relationships.

As time went on, James began to talk about wanting to start his own business, and lo and behold, he was able to get started in this business. He sells collectibles online, and over the last few months he’s been so successful that he’s actually hired an assistant. What James likes to say now is that he wished that he had continued his treatment for administered; maybe he would have avoided substance use disorder. But he takes it all in stride.

He’s got a wonderful attitude, feels very positive about his life, and actually has offered to go and talk to some of the other patients in the recovery program to help them realize that some of them may, in fact, have ADHD that they ought to get treated.

So, I bring up this story of James in order to get you to think about the fact that maybe some of your patients who are in your office with other problems like substance use or alcoholism, or people who can’t quit smoking, maybe some of them have ADHD underlying all of their difficulties, and it would be worthwhile for you to learn how to assess them and maybe begin them in treatment because it could make a huge difference to their lives.