How effective and safe are stimulant medications for older adults?

Older adults are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Psychostimulants may contribute to that risk through side effects, such as elevation of systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and heart rate.

On the other hand, smoking, substance abuse, obesity, and chronic sleep loss – all of which are associated with ADHD – are known to increase cardiovascular risk, and stimulant medications are an effective treatment for ADHD.

So how does this all shake out? A Dutch team of researchers sets out to explore this. Using electronic health records, they compared all 139 patients 55 years and older at PsyQ outpatient clinic, Program Adult ADHD, in The Hague. Because a principal aim of the study was to evaluate the effect of medication on cardiovascular functioning after first medication use, the 26 patients who had previously been prescribed ADHD medication were excluded from the study, leaving a sample size of 113.

The ages of participants ranged from 55 from 79, with a mean of 61. Slightly over half were women. At the outset, 13 percent had elevated systolic and/or diastolic blood pressure, 2 percent had an irregular heart rate, 15 percent had an abnormal electrocardiogram, and 29 percent had some combination of these (a “cardiovascular risk profile”), and 21 percent used antihypertensive medication.

Three out of four participants had at least e comorbid disorder. The most common are sleep disorders, affecting a quarter of participants, and unipolar mood disorders (depressive or more rarely manic episodes, but not both), also affecting a quarter of participants.

Twenty-four patients did not initiate pharmacological treatment. Of the 89 who received ADHD medication, 58 (65%) reported positive effects, and five experienced no effect. Thirty-eight (43%) discontinued ADHD medication while at the clinic due to lack of effect or to side effects. The most commonly reported positive effects were enhanced concentration, more overview, less restlessness, more stable mood, and having more energy. The principal reasons for discontinuing medication were anxiety/depression, cardiovascular complaints, and lack of effect.

Methylphenidate raised heart rate and lowered weight, but had no significant effect on systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Moreover, there was no significant correlation between methylphenidate dosage and any of these variables, nor between methylphenidate users taking hypertensive medication and those not taking such medication. There was no significant difference in systolic or diastolic blood pressure and heart rate before and after the use of methylphenidate among patients with the cardiovascular risk profiles.

Systolic blood pressure rose in ten out of 64 patients, with two experiencing an increase of at least 20 mmHg. It descended in five patients, with three having a decrease of at least 20 mmHg. Diastolic blood pressure rose by at least 10 mmHg in four patients, while dropping at least 10 mmHg in five others.

The authors concluded “that the use of a low dose of ADHD-medication is well tolerated and does not cause clinically significant cardiovascular changes among older adults with ADHD, even among those with an increased cardiovascular risk profile. Furthermore, our older patients experienced significant and clinically relevant improvement of their ADHD symptoms using stimulants, comparable with what is found among the younger age group,” and that “the use of methylphenidate may be a relatively safe and effective treatment for older adults with ADHD, under the condition that all somatic complaints and especially cardiovascular parameters are monitored before and during pharmacological treatment.”

Yet they cautioned that “due to the observational nature of the study and the lack of a control group, no firm conclusions can be drawn as to the effectiveness of the stimulants used. … Important factors that were not systematically reported were the presence of other risk factors, such as smoking, substance (ab)use, aspirin use, and level of physical activity. In addition, the response to medication was not systematically measured”

Marieke Michielsen,Didi Kleef, Denise Bijlenga, Cinderella Zwennes, Kim Dijkhuizen, Jan Smulders,AndreiaHazewinkel,Aartjan T. F. Beekman, and J. J. Sandra Kooij, “Cognitive andelectrophysiological markers of adult full syndrome and subthresholdattention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,”Journal of Attention Disorders(2020),