Adderall still abused by many teens, survey shows

Are Students Relying on Adderall Too Much?
Are Students Relying on Adderall Too Much?

The Obama administration has made combating addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin a central public health priority in the U.S., but data on teen drug use released Wednesday suggest public health officials also need to focus on curbing the abuse of another prescription drug: Adderall.

While data from the Monitoring the Future survey revealed that teens' overall use of tobacco, alcohol and many illicit drugs have largely trended down, it also showed the usage of Adderall among high school seniors in 2015 reached 7.5 percent – among the highest usage levels for prescription, over-the-counter and illicit drugs other than marijuana. That figure is up 1 percentage point from 2013 and 7 points from last year.

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Opioids other than heroin had a usage prevalence of 5.4 percent.

Adderall is an amphetamine typically prescribed by doctors to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or narcolepsy, as it works to stimulate the central nervous system. But it also has a reputation for being used as a study aid, with students reportedly taking it to stay up and finish projects or papers. Some also take it for recreational use, sometimes with alcohol or other drugs.

"Teens are using them not just to get high but to prepare for exams," says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funds the annual University of Michigan-administered survey.

While the drug generally doesn't carry risks as severe as those posed by opioids, it can still be addictive and can lead to psychosis. People who misuse it can become aggressive, paranoid and anxious. In the most serious cases, abusing Adderall can lead to heart attacks and death.

Volkow says studies show less than 20 percent of teens are getting Adderall from doctors, meaning those who abuse it are likely getting the pills from friends or acquaintances. In the survey, nearly 42 percent of high school seniors reported they thought amphetamines were easy to obtain.

Meanwhile, ADHD diagnoses have increased in recent years, going from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ADHD tends to be characterized by impulsive behavior and difficulty concentrating, and is often identified around age 7.

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The survey showed that about 54 percent of high school seniors think people are harming themselves if they take amphetamines like Adderall regularly. "It's important to communicate that it's not safe to take them," Volkow says. "There's a misconception that it will make you smarter. In fact, it can deteriorate cognitive components for certain tasks."

Data for the survey – which has been conducted annually since 1975 – were collected from 44,892 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students from 382 public and private schools.

"We cannot become complacent," Volkow says of the lack of progress in curbing Adderall abuse. "We shouldn't wait until an epidemic until we prevent it."

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