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Do ADHD Drugs Increase Risk of Cardiac Disease in Children?

Attention disorder medicines

Like other diseases and conditions in our modern world, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses in children have increased markedly, globally and in the United States, in recent years. More children and teens with ADHD are taking pharmaceutical drugs to treat this condition.

Millions of American children are now being treated with these stimulant drugs, which improve symptoms for some but not for others. And aside from whether or not ADHD drugs will work for a particular child, there are also valid concerns from many parents about putting strange laboratory chemicals into their young ones’ systems.

Not many studies have been done on the long-term medical and mental effects of ADHD drugs in children; but a few studies have found that these drugs sometimes cause side effects, which can range from mild to serious. Some of the side effects that have been reported in studies include: sleep problems, mood swings, more depression, lower self-esteem, higher blood pressure and faster heart rate. Some studies have also linked use of ADHD drugs with a higher risk of irregular heart beat, general cardiovascular disease and cardiac arrest.

Now, a study from Denmark has found that giving ADHD drugs like Ritalin or Concerta to children doubles the risk of rare cardiac events.

The study followed 714,000 children in Denmark who had been born from 1990 to 1999. They were followed for an average of 9.5 years. Of these children, 8,300 were diagnosed with ADHD after age 5. Among the children with ADHD, 111, a little more than one percent, got cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, irregular heart beat or cardiac arrest (this is when the heart’s electrical signals are disrupted, and the heart starts suddenly beating too fast, erratically, or stops completely).

Researchers found that when children were taking methylphenidates like Ritalin or Concerta, whether or not ADHD had been diagnosed, they had about twice the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

The study was published online recently in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology; journal editor Dr. Harold Koplewicz wrote in an editorial that the study confirms the “small but real risk” that health professionals have been aware of for some time, through previous studies and clinical experience. Indeed, because of reports of sudden death, heart attack and stroke linked to ADHD medications, some doctors assess a child’s heart health before putting them on the drugs.

For parents who wish to try natural approaches for a child’s ADHD symptoms, the following are some recommendations that health experts make:

Diet: reducing the amount of sugar that you give your child could help with hyperactivity and inattention.

According to the Mayo Clinic, artificial food colors and preservatives can increase hyperactive behavior in some children, as well. Here are some food additives to avoid:

  • Preservatives sodium benzoate, BHA and BHT
  • FD&C Red #40
  • FD&C Yellow #5
  • FD&C Yellow #6
  • D&C Yellow #10

If you suspect that your child may have food allergies, you can try removing the following foods from their diet, to see if symptoms improve:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Wheat
  • Chocolate
  • Certain fruits, including oranges, berries, apples, tomatoes, grapes, peaches

Doctors recommend removing one food at a time, so that you can pinpoint the food or foods that cause symptoms, and so that you won’t take too many nutrients from your child’s diet at a time. (If your child should be allergic to milk, talk to your pediatrician about appropriate substitutes, to make sure child gets enough calcium and other nutrients that are present in milk.)

To find out whether your youngster may need vitamin/mineral supplementation, he or she can have a blood test. Supplements should only be given after you’ve cleared them with your child’s doctor, as getting too much of some vitamins and minerals is dangerous.

Other Natural Ways to Treat ADHD

Consider the home environment: is there a lot going on in your household? You might benefit from toning things down; for instance, allowing only an hour or two, and no more, of TV-viewing or computer use a day for your children. You can also try dimming your home lights, either with a manual switch, or by placing darker-colored shades over your lamps. This will give the home a more relaxing feel. Rather than having a bright light overhead, place lamps on tables or use a floor lamp; this makes it easier to adjust lighting.

Keeping a home tidy and clean also promotes a calmer mindset for the whole family. Ask your children to keep their rooms picked up, no clothes on the floor, etc.

It is always a good idea to have structure in a home and to maintain a fairly consistent daily schedule, including meal times.

Parents also do well to spend quality one-on-one time with their children, letting kids know how much they are loved and cherished. Don’t be afraid to hug your children often and show them that you love them. Showing children love does not involve buying them a lot of toys and giving them everything they ask for, but being physically with them.

When both spouses work, families can get creative and plan outings on the weekends; it doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy — a simple picnic at the local park or a barbecue in your own backyard could just provide the whole family with fun that is slow-paced and relaxing, and will help strengthen the bond between you and your children. The closer you and your children are, the more they will want to please you and be well-behaved.

Sports: hiking, bicycling and the like are great ways for the family to get exercise, in addition to burning off some of that excess energy that your youngster displays. And anything that is done as a family is, again, a good way to bring the family closer together. But a child can also benefit greatly from participating in sports with same-age peers. Fast-paced sports such as basketball, soccer and tennis are especially good for children who have a lot of energy.

Massage: have you tried giving your child a massage? This could give them just the relaxation that they need, and it further enhances the parent-child bond. A 15-minute massage twice a week could just deliver you a more relaxed child! (For a good child massage: gently stroke child’s skin with your fingertips, caress their hair and scalp, and give muscle areas a squeeze.)

Sleep: is your child getting enough sleep? If you have to wake them up every morning, or they use an alarm, it means that they’re not. Children need more hours of sleep at night than adults. The way you know if you or your child have had enough sleep is that you will wake up naturally, without being awakened. Aim for 8 hours a night as an adult, 9 hours for a teen, and 10-11 hours for young children. Not getting enough sleep could cause your child to be inattentive, moody and act up.

For sleep to be as restorative and refreshing as it needs to be, there must be darkness and quiet. That means that you can’t have your child sleeping on the living room couch, while you are watching TV or talking on the phone. A child’s sleep environment, just like an adult’s, should be peaceful, and it’s best not to have any lights on at all, not even a night light. If light comes into the room from street lights, this can be easily remedied by putting up dark (black) curtains in the room.

Too many things on child’s schedule: child experts advise that having too many activities in your child’s day could fuel hyperactive and uncooperative behavior. If the child is being pushed to do too much, he or she may become accustomed to running on adrenaline, so that it will be harder for them to slow down when it’s necessary that they do. So, give thought to whether your youngster may have too much on his or her plate.

Disciplining your child: when your child acts up or behaves in another way of which you disapprove, it is important to correct him or her immediately. Work hard at not raising your voice or becoming agitated, because your child is likely to model those behaviors. Instead, talk in a calm voice and let your youngster know that what they did was wrong. If they still don’t stop, step up the heat by putting them on time-out. Time-out should be one minute per year of the child’s life; so, a 7-year-old gets to spend 7 minutes away from the group, whether in the same room or in another room. Time-outs should be used only on occasion, or they’ll become less effective.

By Lisa Pecos

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