Contact: Paul Veugelers
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About one out of every eight U.S. boys and one in 18 girls has received a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), totaling 6.1 million youngsters, according to government data. Worldwide, it’s estimated that more than 100 million children and teenagers have ADHD.
Although medications can help to relieve the worst symptoms, many parents would welcome possible ways of preventing the onset of ADHD, which may lead to serious behavior and academic problems. The disorder has been associated with physical inactivity in kids as well as poor diet quality and sleep habits.
A new study, the first of its kind, finds that when children abide by several key health-promoting lifestyle recommendations at ages 10 and 11 they are less likely to have received an ADHD diagnosis by the age of 14. In fact, a divergence in the likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD, linked only to these lifestyle factors, begins to show up as early as age three, says senior study author Paul Veugelers, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University of Alberta, who worked with colleague Kara Loewen, MSc and others. The study appears in the April issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
The nine lifestyle recommendations—all supported by scientific evidence that they promote children’s health—entail specific dietary guidelines such as six servings a day of fruits and vegetables, eating foods low in sugar and saturated fats, healthy grains, etc.; ample physical activity; limited screen time; and sleeping nine to 11 hours a night.
The researchers surveyed 3,436 fifth graders in Nova Scotia, asking about all of these lifestyle habits, except for sleep and screen time information, which was given by their parents. Parents also provided information on their income, education and place of residence. Canada has a public health system serving virtually all families, and the researchers were able to access the youngsters’ health records from birth to age 14. The study findings were significant after accounting for the children’s gender and body weight, their parents’ income and education, as well as whether they lived in urban or rural regions.
Abiding by each of the nine recommendations was independently linked to a lower likelihood of the child receiving an ADHD diagnosis, says Veugelers. And the link was cumulative: For every additional recommendation met, the likelihood of an ADHD diagnosis reduced by 18 percent. Overall, children who met seven to nine of the healthy lifestyle recommendations were less than half as likely to have received an ADHD diagnosis as peers who only met one to three of the recommendations.
Although there is no proven explanation for why healthier habits might influence development of ADHD, some scientists have speculated that these habits could alter the gut biome or inflammation levels in a way that influences brain function.
“To get such a big effect only from complying with recommendations that are known to be good for children to begin with is very impressive,” says Veugelers. This is the first study to look at these lifestyle factors simultaneously—diet, physical activity, screen time and sleep—in conjunction with the onset of ADHD, he adds. While the study controlled for a number of variables such as gender, socioeconomic and demographic factors that might have influenced the findings, it could not rule out a role for factors such as genetics that were not considered, he points out.
But the fact that a divergence in likelihood of diagnosis exclusively tied to abiding by the established lifestyle recommendations appears as early as age three “underscores the importance for parents to consider these recommendations for their children from early on,” says Veugelers. “We need to get that message out.”
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”