A new way to help kids with ADHD: Treat adult ADHD
When a child is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it can often be a surprise to the parents that one of them has ADHD as well. They may have experienced some of the symptoms but never had the condition diagnosed.
Physicians, however, are usually less surprised because they know that ADHD is a very heritable disorder. According to a 2015 study, if a parent has ADHD, the child has up to a 57 percent chance of having it, and the child’s risk is 32 percent if their sibling has it.
“There have been 20 to 30 twin studies that show that the heritability of ADHD is about 70 percent,” meaning that both twins have it, says Stephen Faraone, distinguished professor and vice chair for research at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “It is as heritable as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism or other psychiatric disorders that people tend to think are more biological than ADHD for some reason.”
More attention needed for adult ADHD
Brad McAlister, CMSE, executive director of the American Professional Society of ADHD & Related Disorders, or APSARD, explains that the consequences of untreated ADHD in adults are very well documented. The prevalence of ADHD in U.S. adults is 4.4 percent or about 11 million people.
Many adults go undiagnosed for decades or are misdiagnosed by providers. McAlister says that 75 percent are not receiving treatment. “The U.S. economic burden of adult ADHD is $105 to $194 billion annually,” he says. “The negative consequences on peoples’ lives include higher risks of dropping out of school, losing jobs, financial debt, divorce, fractured relationships, substance use disorders, and co-occurring depression/anxiety.”
One of the negative impacts of undiagnosed ADHD in adults is the effect that it can have on their children who have ADHD.
Adult ADHD is currently treated by a broad range of health care providers with different educational backgrounds and in different practice settings. In August, APSARD published the first U.S. guidelines for adult ADHD. “The creation of guidelines for ADHD in adults will allow all practitioners to benefit from the best evidence about diagnosing and treating the disorder,” McAlister says.
Faraone explains that the guidelines are intended to help practitioners understand the best practices for adults with ADHD, including screening and other ways of evaluating whether someone has it. He recently completed a study of what he calls the Metrics of Quality Care for adults with ADHD.
“We looked at a sizable group of primary care practices in the U.S., and we learned that although quality care for adults with ADHD has been gradually improving over the past decade, there are many areas where it is still far behind where it needs to be,” he says. “That’s consistent with other studies that show that in primary care for adults, ADHD is not treated nearly as well as it is treated in specialty and psychiatry care.”
How kids with ADHD are affected
One of the negative impacts of undiagnosed ADHD in adults is the effect that it can have on their children who have ADHD because their ability to care for that child’s special needs may be impaired.
“The treatments that are most effective in treating children with ADHD are medication and behavioral interventions as their reward bait, and at home, it’s the parent that administers them,” says Mark A. Stein, director of the ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Adults with ADHD have difficulties with time management and organization skills, so they will have a hard time making sure their child is ready for school, has breakfast, has their medications, etcetera.”
Even more challenging than getting a prescription, Stein adds, is finding a psychologist or therapist who is skilled in evaluating and working with children with ADHD and their parents. If left undiagnosed and untreated, adult ADHD may also interfere with getting a good evaluation for the child.
“If you have ADHD and your mind is wandering and you don’t have all of the forms from the school for your provider, and you’re focused on the bad day you’re having rather than giving a history of your child, all of that is going to delay getting an effective treatment for your child,” Stein says. “So that’s why it’s important to identify ADHD in parents.”
Promising research and training
After delays due to the pandemic, Stein and his colleague Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, professor and director of the Maryland ADHD Program at the University of Maryland, are now about two years into what they anticipate will be a six-year study that involves treating parents who have children with untreated ADHD symptoms. The goal is to see whether treating the parent first with medication and training, or just the training, helps the child’s symptoms due to improved parenting. They are also studying whether they can postpone the need for medication until children are older, when it’s more effective.
“Pediatricians are more aware of ADHD in parents because of our study,” Stein says. “They’re also more aware of the shortcomings in our healthcare delivery system in terms of how hard it is to find providers who are comfortable treating adult ADHD.”
“Besides depression, ADHD is the other disorder that parents have that really impacts kids significantly," Stein says. “With treatment, many people with ADHD do very well."
That said, he’s seen a significant improvement in the past decade with increased recognition of ADHD in adults. “It started with pediatricians recognizing that post-partum depression impacted the mother’s ability to care for her children and making it routine to screen for depression in parents of kids,” he says. “Besides depression, ADHD is the other disorder that parents have that really impacts kids significantly, so it’s important for them to be aware of characteristics of [ADHD in] parents and have resources they can give parents to help them.”
Stein emphasizes that even if someone displays symptoms of ADHD, that does not mean that they have it. They should seek a physician’s evaluation to confirm a diagnosis, which would enable them to get the medication and behavioral treatment they need.
The medication can take effect in parents within an hour. Meanwhile, when parents participate in the behavioral parent training courses, their kids with ADHD start showing significant improvement within about four to five weeks, according to Stein.
“With treatment, many people with ADHD do very well,” he says. “Especially if they get through formal schooling, find the right fit with their job, and if they make the right choices with their relationships, those three things can go a long way to make their ADHD fade into the background.”
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”