September 8, 2021

How do psychiatric comorbidities affect risk of premature death among children and adults with ADHD?


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 27 years 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 disorders increased risk by roughly two and a half times.

The co-variate analysis helped tease out what portion of the risk was associated with ADHD alone versus comorbid conditions. Adjusting for the 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 the 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, Ph.D.; Stephen V. Faraone,  Ph.D.; Brian M. D'Onofrio, Ph.D.; Søren Dalsgaard, Ph.D.; Zheng Chang, Ph.D.; Henrik Larsson, Ph.D., "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.2019.1944Published online August 7, 2019.

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(Note: Actigraphy is a non-invasive method of monitoring human rest/activity cycles. It involves the use of a small, wearable device called an actigraph or actimetry sensor, typically worn on the wrist, similar to a watch. The actigraph records movement data over extended periods, often days to weeks, to track sleep patterns, activity levels, and circadian rhythms. In this study, actigraphy devices were used to measure fidgeting by recording the participants' movements continuously during the cognitive task. This data provided objective, quantitative measures of fidgeting, allowing the researchers to analyze its relationship with attention and task performance.)

The study involved 70 adult participants aged 18-50, all diagnosed with ADHD. Participants underwent a thorough screening process, including clinical interviews and ADHD symptom ratings. The analysis revealed that fidgeting increased during correct trials, particularly in participants with consistent reaction times, suggesting that fidgeting helps sustain attention. Interestingly, fidgeting patterns varied between early and later trials, further highlighting its role in maintaining focus over time.

Additionally, a correlation analysis validated the relevance of the newly defined fidget variables with ADHD symptom severity. This finding suggests that fidgeting may act as a compensatory mechanism for individuals with ADHD, aiding in their ability to maintain attention during tasks requiring cognitive control.

This study provides valuable insights into the role of fidgeting in adults with ADHD, suggesting that it may help sustain attention during challenging cognitive tasks. By introducing and validating new fidget variables, the researchers hope to standardize future quantitative research in this area. Understanding the compensatory role of fidgeting can lead to better management strategies for ADHD, emphasizing the potential benefits of movement for maintaining focus.

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A recent study investigated the presence of autistic-like symptoms in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Given the overlapping social difficulties in both ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), distinguishing between the two disorders can be challenging. This study aims to pinpoint specific patterns of autistic symptoms in children with ADHD, comparing them to those with ASD using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, 2nd edition (ADOS-2).

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  • ASD Group (18 children): Children diagnosed with ASD.

Researchers used ADOS-2 to evaluate differences in communication deficits, social interaction challenges, and repetitive behaviors between the two groups. The study also compared IQ, age, ADOS-2 domain scores, and externalizing/internalizing problems.

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The study highlights the importance of identifying transdiagnostic domains that overlap between ADHD and ASD. The transdiagnostic domain refers to a set of symptoms or behaviors that are common across multiple diagnostic categories rather than being specific to just one. Identifying these domains in mental health practice and in psychological research is crucial to understanding, properly diagnosing, and treating conditions with overlapping features. This understanding could pave the way for tailored treatments addressing the specific needs of children with ADHD, particularly those exhibiting autistic-like symptoms.

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Recent research by Brancati et al. reviews the efficacy and safety of non-stimulant medications for adult ADHD. Atomoxetine, a well-studied non-stimulant, has shown significant effectiveness in treating ADHD symptoms in adults. The review highlights the importance of considering dosage, treatment duration, safety, and the presence of psychiatric comorbidities when prescribing atomoxetine.

Additionally, certain antidepressants, including tricyclic compounds, bupropion, and viloxazine, which possess noradrenergic or dopaminergic properties, have demonstrated efficacy in managing adult ADHD. Antihypertensive medications, especially guanfacine, have also been found effective. Other medications like memantine, metadoxine, and mood stabilizers show promise, whereas treatments like galantamine, antipsychotics, and cannabinoids have not yielded positive results.

The expert opinion section of the review emphasizes that while clinical guidelines primarily recommend atomoxetine as a second-line treatment, several other non-stimulant options can be utilized to tailor treatments based on individual patient needs and comorbid conditions. Despite these advancements, the authors call for further research to develop and refine more personalized treatment strategies for adults with ADHD.

This review underscores the growing landscape of non-stimulant treatment options, offering hope for more personalized and effective management of ADHD in adults.

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