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ADHD and Obesity – a Surprising Result

A very long running study, 33 years and still going, has been looking at various aspects of how ADHD affects people across life. A new paper in Pediatrics (out now on-line and in the June paper edition) has found that children with ADHD in childhood are twice as likely to be obese as the non ADHD population in later life, even if the ADHD appears to be in remission.

It is a very solid study since it has been going for so long so can be sure of accurate records (some studies rely on people’s memories which is okay as far as it goes, but aren’t nearly as reliable as having contemporary records). One point to note is that, even in a very long running study, because two things correlate, here ADHD and obesity, cause and effect is not necessarily proven. Cause has to precede effect, so obesity in middle age can’t have caused childhood ADHD, but the ADHD may not have caused the obesity, there may be a common cause. This is discussed in a very digestible form for the non-scientist in this article in the Scientific American.

However, whatever the cause, it is yet another burden for those afflicted. Obesity, in common with ADHD is a problem that is often regarded by the general public and even members of the medical profession as a moral failing in the sufferer rather than a medical problem to be treated.

To people with a long-standing knowledge of ADHD the study isn’t entirely surprising. One might think that people with ADHD in remission wouldn’t suffer the side effects, but ADHD used to be considered as ‘just’ hyperactivity and people simply slow down as they get older. The human dynamo nature of hyperactive children may drop off, but there is no reason to suppose the other aspects just go away on their own. Study after study has shown that people with ADHD fare worse in all sorts of measures compared to the general population.

Something to watch out for in discussions of the paper is that the study was only done on boys, so when a headline says that ADHD is linked to obesity in men, it is pretty likely that it is linked to obesity in women too, just that the study only followed boys. 33 years ago ADHD and its various forms was barely recognised in girls (and even in boys it was fairly new and was considered to be mainly hyperactivity).

If you haven’t yet, read more in Scientific American.

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