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How to prevent ADHD in kids

Whatever your feelings about labels for kids, there’s news about ADHD you need to know. A new study from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center finds that children in the United States who are exposed prenatally to tobacco smoke and during childhood to environmental lead face a particularly high risk for ADHD. Are your kids at risk?

Pregnant Woman Breaking Cigarette

Imagine if someone came to you and offered you a way to dramatically reduce your unborn baby’s chance of developing a disorder that would affect every aspect of her childhood and much of her life? Who among us wouldn’t jump at the chance to give our babies, our children, a brighter future? A better chance?


A look at the numbers

About 2.4 million children between the ages of 8 and 15 across the United States are estimated to have ADHD — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Imagine that you had a way to prevent the disorder in 800,000 of those children. That’s more than 35 percent of kids with ADHD who could be free of it.

Tanya Froehlich, MD, a physician in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, recently served as lead author on a study that showed that children exposed to tobacco before birth had a 2.4 fold increased odds of ADHD. Children with slightly elevated blood lead levels — even though their levels were below 10 micrograms per deciliter, which is the Centers for Disease Control’s “action level” — had a 2.3 fold increased odds of ADHD.

Simple math indicates that the combined risk for kids exposed to both prenatal tobacco and childhood lead would be 5.5 fold increased odds. The real numbers? Kids exposed to both toxins were 8.1 percent more likely to have ADHD than unexposed children.

Apparently, exposure to the two poisons is significantly worse than being exposed to each one individually.

What is ADHD?

Isn’t this just another scare tactic to terrify parents into putting kids in bubbles? Not at all. ADHD is a real disorder, in fact one of the most common mental disorders that develop in children. Children with ADHD have impaired functioning at home, at school, and in relationships with their peers.

If you ignore ADHD, it won’t go away. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, untreated ADHD can have long-term adverse effects well into adolescence and adulthood.

Prevention v. Treatment

Parents and medical professionals have tended “to focus on ADHD treatment rather than prevention,” says Dr. Froehlich. But, in fact, her study “suggests that reducing exposures to environmental toxicants might be a key way to lower rates of ADHD.”

A particularly frightening component of the study is the measure used to determine prenatal tobacco exposure: maternal report of cigarette use during pregnancy. If you’re pregnant and you smoke, quitting is critical. Both the American Lung Association and the March of Dimes have information online and hotlines you can call to help you quit smoking.

And what about lead? Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. The CDC offers tips for reducing lead exposure. If you’re a garage sale junkie or a fan of hand-me-downs, you should probably go through all your toys very carefully and get rid of anything that you suspect might have lead paint. Yes, secondhand toys are cheap, but healthy children are priceless. Talk to your pediatrician about any concerns.

The study is based on data on 8 to 15 years olds gathered between 2001 and 2004 from a nationally representative sample of the United State population, designed to collect information about the health and diet of people in the U.S. “These findings highlight the need to strengthen public health efforts to reduce prenatal tobacco smoke exposure and exposure to lead during childhood,” says Dr. Froehlich.
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