A new study suggests that Ritalin and similar drugs, used to treat attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), do not raise the risk of serious heart problems, stroke or sudden death.
That’s very good news for children who take ADHD drugs and their parents.
In the new study, researchers looked at the diverse medical records of 1.2 million children, ages 2-24 years old. They checked health records for evidence of heart problems, including heart attacks, strokes and sudden cardiac deaths, in children who were currently taking the drugs or who had taken Ritalin or Adderall in the past.
"We don't see any evidence of increased risk," said Dr. William Cooper of Vanderbilt University, whose study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In 2006, U.S. and Canadian regulators received a number of reports of heart attacks, strokes and sudden cardiac arrest in children taking ADHD medications. This study is the first of three commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration. Also because of concerns about possible heart related problems, the American Heart Association issued guidelines suggesting that children who were just starting to take the drugs should be tested for potential underlying heart problems.
"There's such strong feelings around these drug and whether they are overused in children who might be helped by behavioral therapy alone,” Cooper said. "The potential safety questions have added another layer of concern."
The study was aimed at resolving safety questions. The team found no increased risk of heart problems for either current or past users of the drugs. Yet because there were so few cases of serious heart problems -- just 81 -- the study may not have been large enough to detect it.
But even if there were a risk of heart problems, it is extremely slight, Cooper said.
In a guidance document issued on Tuesday, the FDA said it continues to recommend that the drugs not be used in patients with serious heart problems. It added that patients should be monitored for changes in heart rate or blood pressure.
More than 5 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. Whether children are being over medicated or should even be taking stimulants at all to treat ADHD has long been a controversial subject. Some organizations and parents believe that supplying children with stimulants to treat ADHD is harmful.
For those parents that believe ADHD drugs are helping their children focus better in school and live more productive lives, this recent study should offer some reassurance that the drugs do not contribute to heart problems.
"This study would suggest that their risk is remarkably low. And that's good news," noted Dr. Cooper.