Risk Factors for ADHD: Several May Be at Play

What Can (and Can't) Raise Your Risk of ADHD?

ADHD definition
ADHD definition. Getty Images/Amanda Rohde/E+

There are no simple answers when it comes to identifying what risk factors for ADHD contributed to someone developing it—a fact that can be quite unsettling if you or child recently has been diagnosed, or if you suspect the possibility. Researchers have examined thousands of possible causes of ADHD and have debunked many of them. From genetics to pregnancy complications and even dietary and parenting habits, experts continue to investigate the risk factors that may play a role in the growing prevalence of this common childhood disorder.

What Ups Your Risk for ADHD?

Some of the known risk factors for ADHD are things that can you can influence, while others are not.

Genetics: Genetics and heredity are perhaps the greatest risk factors for ADHD. If you have a family member with ADHD, your risk for developing the disease is higher. In fact, approximately 40 to 50 percent of children with ADHD also have a parent or close relative with the disorder.

Pregnancy Issues: Low birth weight, premature birth and complications during pregnancies (high blood pressure, long delivery time and anything that impacts the baby’s oxygen supply during birth) have all been linked to an increased risk for ADHD in children.

Studies also show that drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or using illicit drugs during pregnancy can increase the risk of having a baby born with ADHD.

Brain injuries: Brain abnormalities or structural differences have been found in individuals with ADHD.

Traumatic brain injury may result in symptoms similar to ADHD, but only a small percentage of children with ADHD have brain injuries.

Environmental toxin exposure: Preschoolers who have been exposed to high levels of lead (often found in paint and plumbing fixtures in old buildings) may be at an increased risk for ADHD.

In addition, exposure to high levels of household pesticides (in utero and during early childhood) may play a role.

Other Theories About ADHD

The above risk factors for ADHD are backed by solid evidence. When discussing this topic, however, you are bound to hear about other potential contributors that are yet to be proven:

Diet: It has been suggested that refined sugars or food additives may increase the risk for ADHD, yet no conclusive evidence has been found to support this theory, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nutrition and diet can affect mood and behavior, however, as well as brain development in early life.

Parenting: Parents can’t cause ADHD. There is no study-proven link between parenting styles and ADHD, though poor parenting and lack of discipline may worsen the symptoms of ADHD or cause behavior similar to the disorder.

Screen time: While too much television watching has been found to increase attention problems in children, scientists have yet to discover a solid link between excessive screen time and ADHD.

Social/environmental factors: Researchers are continuing to explore the role of poverty, divorce, neighborhood violence and substance abuse and ADHD.

Vaccines: Experts have studied whether thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines before 2001, contributes to the rise of ADHD. However, no concrete evidence has been found.

Sources: Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health, National Resource Center on AD/HD.

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