It might come as a surprise that popular medications to treat attention deficit hyperativity disorder (ADHD) do not result in better grades. Even though the drugs are known to improve attention and self control, they won't necessarily add up to a patient being a better student by test score standards.
A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research published in June describes how researchers evaluated long-term the effects of a policy change in the Quebec that expanded coverage for ADHD medications.
"We ask whether this increase in medication use was associated with improvements in emotional functioning and short- and long-run academic outcomes among children with ADHD," the study stated.
What they found was an increase of "emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys." Overall, the researchers suggest that expanding the use of the medication in the population might have "negative consequences given the average way these drugs are used in the community."
Such findings are also important in the context of ADHD medications, like Ritalin and Adderall, being increasingly abused by teens and young adults under the assumption that it will help them get better grades. A University of Michigan study in 2012 found 10 percent of high school sophomores and 12 percent of seniors admitted to using such medication as a "study drug."
The Wall Street Journal reported finding a lack of improvement in grades "surprising because the drugs seem to have the potential to improve memory, among other cognitive skills."
Other studies add confusion to these findings though. A Mayo Clinic study has found benefits in school, although not necessarily translating directly into grades, from taking medication:
"This is the first study that shows that taking stimulants for ADHD improves long-term school performance," lead researcher Dr. William Barbaresi with the Mayo Clinic said. "This includes reading achievement, being absent from school and being retained in a grade -- stimulant treatment was associated with better outcomes," he said.
In the first study, Barbaresi's team followed more than 5,700 children from birth until they were 18 years old. Among these children, 277 boys and 93 girls were diagnosed with ADHD.
The Mayo team found that treatment with prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin, was associated with improved long-term academic success of children with ADHD.
A study published in June 2012 found that starting children on medication earlier might improve the effectiveness of the drugs. ABC News reported Dr. Stefani Hines with Beaumont Children's Hospital in Michigan saying at the time, "Although ADHD medications do not make a child smarter, they do improve those target symptoms that can hinder academic performance and progress, namely distractibility, attentional weaknesses, and impulsivity."
Yet another study published earlier this year by researchers at Johns Hopkins Children's Center found ADHD symptoms can continue even with treatment.
"ADHD is becoming a more common diagnosis in early childhood, so understanding how the disorder progresses in this age group is critical," lead author Mark Riddle, a pediatric psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, said in a statement. "We found that ADHD in preschoolers is a chronic and rather persistent condition, one that requires better long-term behavioral and pharmacological treatments than we currently have."
"...it is worrisome that children with ADHD, even when treated with medication, continue to experience symptoms, and what we need to find out is why that is and how we can do better," Riddle continued.
Overall, most studies agree that medication is not the only treatment needed to help patients with ADHD perform well in school. Although it might help them focus, the Wall Street Journal reported experts saying it doesn't help them to decide what to focus upon.
WSJ put it this way: "One way of interpreting the findings is that the medicine proves effective on immediate classroom behaviors like sitting still and interrupting the teacher less, but it doesn't help with other factors important to successful completion of homework or test-taking, like family encouragement."
Watch WJS's report about the relationship between ADHD medication and academic performance:
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