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Adult ADHD drug abuse on the rise

There is a new call for immediate action on so-called “lifestyle use” of ADHD drugs
Doctors' new fears over ADHD medicine abuse among adults 02:31

Physicians and government health officials are concerned about the misuse of prescription drugs for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) by adults who have not been diagnosed with the condition.

Experts say a growing number of people are taking medications like Ritalin or Adderall for so-called "lifestyle" purposes, to ease daily life or give them an edge at work. A new paper published in the journal Lancet indicates that millions of adults may be taking ADHD drugs simply to improve focus and concentration and tackle everyday challenges.

Nearly 4.5 percent of adults and approximately 5 to 10 percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. The problem is that doctors are writing more prescriptions for these drugs than there are patients actually diagnosed with the condition.

"What we do know about this is the number of prescriptions written for adults is far outpacing the number of ADHD diagnoses being made," medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips told "CBS This Morning." "People are using it for lifestyle reasons. Basically, even if you don't have ADHD, the drugs that treat the illness are amphetamines -- they're stimulants -- so they give you a short boost in memory, concentration, motivation, attention, appetite control. A lot of people use it to get a competitive edge at work. In my practice, I'm asked for it every day by people who don't have ADHD."

However, more research is needed to understand just how widespread this trend has actually become. The authors of the Lancet paper point out that the focus of studies that examine abuse of ADHD drugs for "enhancement" purposes have focused on students who need to get through another semester's worth of papers and exams. These studies do not account for middle aged and older adults, and they don't examine the repercussions of casual use.

"There are small side effects, whether it's stomach upset, nausea, headaches," Phillips told CBS News. "And there can be more serious effects, whether it's seizures, high blood pressure. But the big question is people who have ADHD, they have changes in the neurotransmitters of their brains. These drugs help to even those out and balance out those neurotransmitters. We don't know what these drugs do long-term to people who have healthy brains. So that's really one of the reasons we need to do more research, and why we should be reticent to people who don't actually carry the diagnosis."

Additionally, prescription cognitive enhancers are typically treated as a single class of drugs when there may be side effects unique to only one of the medications. The authors of the paper "call on funders and policy makers to prioritize research of pharmacological cognitive enhancers in healthy individuals and to consider how best to promote rigorous scientific research in this domain that is socially and ethically responsible."

Phillips says some physicians are more relaxed and willing to write a prescription even if their patient has not received an ADHD diagnosis. The other consideration is that many adults who ask for the drugs should probably be evaluated for ADHD.

"We also know people who have ADHD are both under-diagnosed and under-treated. But people also get it through other ways. It is widely available on the internet. I've had mothers take it from their children," said Phillips. "It happens every day. I have my patients get a psych evaluation before they're prescribed drugs."

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