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  • Posted March 12, 2024

ADHD Meds Cut Odds for Early Death, Especially by Overdose

People diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) show a marked decline in their two-year risk for death once they start taking medication, new research shows.

That was particularly true for deaths due to accidents and drug overdose.

People taking ADHD drugs also showed no higher risk of dying from natural causes -- suggesting the meds are safe for users' heart health.

Medications like Ritalin, Concerta and others probably lower users' odds for an early death “by alleviating the core symptoms of ADHD and other psychiatric co-morbidities [illnesses], leading to improved impulse control and decision-making,” concluded a team led by Zheng Chang, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

Better impulse control and healthier decisions help people with ADHD avoid tragedies like fatal accidents and drug overdoses, the researchers said.

As Chang's team noted, prior research has shown that people with ADHD face double the odds for deaths from “unnatural causes” -- events such as accidents, suicide and unintended drug overdoses. 

Many people struggle with the decision to start ADHD medications, however, so the new study wanted to see if the drugs might lower death risks.

Chang's team gathered data from multiple Swedish health registries. In all, they amassed medical histories on almost 149,000 Swedes who'd been diagnosed with ADHD between the ages of 6 and 64.

Within three months of their diagnosis, about 57% of them began to take an ADHD medication, while the remaining 43% did not.

Health outcomes for all patients were tracked for two years post-diagnosis.

The study found initiation of ADHD medication to be associated with a 21% decline in deaths from all causes, compared to folks who'd stayed off meds.  

The benefit from medication was even greater (a 25% decline) when the researchers focused solely on deaths from unnatural causes.

When the team looked at deaths from natural causes (for example, heart disease, cancers, etc) the benefit was less -- just 14%, which was not deemed statistically significant. 

However, this statistic was still reassuring, since some people may worry about the effect of stimulant medications on their hearts.

When it came to reductions in deaths by unnatural causes, most of the benefit came from avoidance of unintentional drug overdoses. The risk for fatal overdoses dropped by 53% among folks who took an ADHD med, compared to those who did not. 

That makes sense, the Swedish team said, since ADHD medicines help prevent the onset of other psychiatric ills “such as mood, anxiety or substance use disorders.”

The study was published March 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“There is also evidence showing that ADHD medications were associated with lower risk of accidents, substance use and criminality, which in turn could lead to  lower rates of unnatural deaths,” Chang's group added.

Although the study focused on health benefits accruing two years after diagnosis, the reduction in risk for unnatural deaths remained significant (an 11% decline) by five years post-diagnosis.

"It will be crucial to establish whether the benefits we have seen in this study will persist over time," Chang said in a Karolinska Institute news release. "We will also try to identify any additional adverse effects associated with long-term medication."

More information

Find out more about treatments for ADHD at the Mayo Clinic.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, March 12, 2024

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