Is Poor Sleep a Reason for the Rise in ADHD Diagnosis?

In 1960, two percent of adults in the US reported that they slept less than seven hours every night, though in 2011 it was found that the figure had risen to no less than 35 per cent.

According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of children being diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has risen dramatically, with a 16 per cent increase from 2007 alone.

This led to Vatsal G. Thakkar, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the N.Y.U School of medicine, asking: ‘what if a substantial proportion of [HDHD] cases are really sleep disorders in disguise?

He added:

“For some people — especially children — sleep deprivation does not necessarily cause lethargy; instead they become hyperactive and unfocused.”

 “Researchers and reporters are increasingly seeing connections between dysfunctional sleep and what looks like A.D.H.D., but those links are taking a long time to be understood by parents and doctors.”

Though Thakkar’s proposition may raise new questions amongst families and sufferers, he is not the first person to discuss the issue.

In 2012, Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist for posed the question as to whether ADHD medicine was not only being overused, but also wrongly prescribed.

In the article, Szalavitz argues that:

“As beneficial as the medications can be, however, other research shows that they may be over-used, as awareness of ADHD has increased and as some seek quick-fix solutions in a pill to treat children’s challenging behaviours.”

In fact, a recent study featured in the Paediatrics journal found that in any given class, younger children are 50% more likely to get an ADHD diagnosis than their older classmates. This, therefore, raises the issue as to whether maturity is taken into account when concerns of hyperactivity have arisen.

Thakkar also argues that sleep in childhood has a greater influence on later life than we ever imagined. In another study which focused on children who suffered from sleep-disordered breathing in infancy, it found that they were 20 to 60 percent more likely to have behavioural problems at the age of 4 and 40 to 100 percent more likely to have such problems by the age of seven.

Thakkar continues:

“CLEARLY there is more going on in the nocturnal lives of our children than any of us have realised. Typically, we see and diagnose only their downstream, daytime symptoms.”

If doctors were, therefore, able to find evidence of a sleep disorder, would it help them better evaluate their patients in terms of ADHD?

Though scientists are fairly sure that this information would help, the unfortunate truth is that most doctors do not have the available resources; even getting the patient to keep an accurate sleep log is quite difficult.

So what is the answer?

According to Thakkar at least, the answer lies in the need to spend more on researching both areas, as in 2013 The National Institutes of Health are only planning to spend $240 million on the subject of sleep disorders.

At the same time, however, there can be many causes of a disjointed sleeping pattern, even during childhood:

  • The watching of television or playing of computer games is often cited as a primary cause of many disorders.
  • Sleep apnoea is also common in children aged between 3 and 6 as their tonsils and adenoids are at their largest stages in comparison to the small size of their airwaves.
  • Other than this, environmental conditions can also influence how a child sleeps. Fear of the dark and or an uncomfortable temperature can play a huge role in the wellbeing and quality of your child’s sleep.

Before you consult your doctor, take into consideration how your child sleeps and as to whether this could be affecting them during the day. The NHS has published a very informative article about sleeping problems and solutions.