ADHD: A Global Epidemic or Just a Bunch of Fidgety Kids?

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A new study finds that the rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In Germany, for instance, 2.2% of kids were treated for hyperkinetic disorder (roughly speaking, the European equivalent of ADHD) in 2007; that’s an increase of 53% for boys and 69% for girls since 2000. Treatment among older kids, those 15 to 18, doubled during the same period.

In the U.S., nearly 3% of kids now takes a stimulant like Ritalin; the figure is now 2.4% in Australia and 2.5% in Israel. More than 7% of the 10-year-old boys in Iceland take the drug. The new study points out that while Ritalin works best only in conjunction with psychotherapy, many if not most children get the drug without cognitive-behavioral supports. (More on A Five-Minute Brain Scan Tracks Kids’ Development and May Spot Disorders)

The rise in ADHD diagnoses among kids indicates one of two things: either children are more fidgety and less able to focus these days, or parents and doctors have become less patient with the squirms and jiggles of childhood. Probably both things are true: there’s more to distract kids today, all those Xboxes and kids’ channels. And parents have a solution to fidgety children not open to their grandparents: diagnose them with ADHD and treat them with Ritalin.

But as I pointed out last year in an article about ADHD research at the University of Central Florida (UCF), acting hyperkinetic — playing with your hair, wriggling in your seat — is not always a sign that a child is distracted and not learning. According to psychologist Mark Rapport of UCF, squirming and fidgeting can be a way children maintain their cortical arousal — especially their working memory — when faced with a dull task. Rapport has found that kids with ADHD who are told to sit still perform worse on tests than those allowed to move around naturally. (More on Study: ADHD Checklist Too Easy to Fake)

In other words, constant fidgeting may not be a disease that needs a medication. It might just be a sign, around the globe, of the condition known as childhood.

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