Adderall Abuse Continues to Rise Among Young Adults

Nonmedical use of of amphetamines like Adderall has risen in recent years, driven in part by people giving their friends and family their prescription stimulants. Seppi333 via Wikimedia Commons

The misuse and abuse of stimulants prescribed to treat ADHD, like Adderall, continues to be a problem on college campuses and among young adults. In a study published Tuesday in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers found that nonmedical use of Adderall rose 67 percent from 2005 to 2011 among people ages 18 to 25, and emergency room visits related to the medication went up by 156 percent.

Many have speculated that overprescription of the drug is a primary cause of the problem, but the new study suggests the situation is more complicated—nearly 70 percent of those who used Adderall "non-medically" reported not having a prescription and getting it from friends or family, says study co-author Dr. Ramin Mojtabai, a physician and researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. (Nonmedical use is defined as taking a prescription stimulant without a prescription or in a way other than prescribed such as in high doses, or via crushing and snorting it.)

In other words, the problem isn't only too many prescriptions, but people sharing their medication with others, Mojtabai says.

Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that while prescription stimulants like Adderall are over-prescribed, this study shows that negative consequences of their use are largely driven by their non-medical use. (While Volkow was not involved in the research, NIDA did help fund the study.)

In total, about one in three college students report using Adderall of Ritalin in a "non-medical" way, and there is some evidence that the situation is getting worse. Meanwhile, according to the recent study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, abuse of these prescription drugs amongst adolescents aged 12 to 17 appears to have leveled off, and emergency rooms visits related to Adderall declined by 53 percent from 2005 to 2011 for this age group. The study looked at data from three national surveys, and represent the latest years for which information on all three measures is available.

Even still, about 7.5 percent of high school seniors report using some form of prescription amphetamine the last year, Volkow says. While that number has remained mostly stable over the last five years, the number is "still quite high," Volkow says.

Both Mojtabai and Volkow think education is key to improving the problem. Many regard these medications as safe, and don't know that the drugs can have negative side effects. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that misuse of Adderall and Dexedrine "may cause sudden death and serious cardiovascular events." And even proper use can cause anxiety, agitation and insomnia, Mojtabai says. These drugs are also habit-forming, and can lead to dependence, he adds.

For all these reason, they should be taken under the watch of a physician, who can help deal with any adverse effects that arise, Mojtabai says.