As American kids prepare to flood back to school, for many parents it’s time to focus on the tough question, “What will we do about his ADHD this year?”
Three to five percent of our children suffer from ADHD according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Many of them take a “holiday” from the symptom-controlling drugs over the summer, so now it’s time for parents to revisit the dilemma: “To medicate or not to medicate?”
For those families, ADHD can be an everyday monster, but for the majority who don’t struggle with ADHD, the disorder is often misunderstood and viewed as an over-diagnosed crutch. However, as ADHD research mounts, so does evidence supporting the conclusion that ADHD is a legitimate struggle marked by physical differences in the brain.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disruptive behavior disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity or both. Environment, gender and genetics all play a role; food dyes and metal toxicity have been linked to symptoms, boys are nearly three times as likely to be diagnosed with it, and children with ADHD usually have at least one close relative who also has it. A 2009 study revealed an “ADHD gene” – a variant of a dopamine receptor that brings a greatly increased risk of having ADHD.
In people with ADHD, the frontal cortex of the brain has less blood flow and more difficulty using energy than in people without ADHD. This area of the brain inhibits impulses, initiates behavior, and controls working memory. So, when it’s underactive, the ability to screen out irrelevant stimuli is reduced, and the individual pays attention to EVERYTHING – the fly on the wall, the truck down the road, shiny shoes and the smell of lunch.
Stimulant medications can strengthen this underactive frontal cortex area by releasing dopamine, which energizes the brain and allows the person to calm down and focus. This type of medication is among the most common ADHD treatments. According to a recent report by Consumer Reports Health, 84 percent of diagnosed children will, at some point, treat the symptoms with prescription medications.
Other common strategies include a change in diet, taking supplements or requesting classroom accommodations, like allowing a child to test in a quiet room and eliminating distractions.
While these treatments often work, especially in combination, they also have significant downsides. Stimulants can cause insomnia, loss of appetite, irritability and a sense of emotional “numbness”. A decade-long study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that long-term use of the drugs can stunt children’s growth and possibly diminish in effectiveness after two years.
Another problem with these treatments: the stigma attached can escalate other common problems for kids with ADHD – depression and low self-esteem. Plus, they don’t actually cure the problem, they simply mask the symptoms to a tolerable level. The need for accommodations, medication and intervention can follow well into adulthood. An estimated two to four percent of American adults still battle ADHD.
Cognitive brain training is one safe alternative to life-long symptom management. LearningRx brain training programs have proven tremendously successful. Intense one-on-one brain training targets weak cognitive skills like attention, working memory and processing speed, and strengthens those skills to the point where there is no longer a deficit. For many students the symptoms subside, the need for medication disappears and the diagnosis, and the label, no longer fit. In fact, 50 percent of those who are on an ADHD medication at the start of a LearningRx program no longer need the medication within a three- to six-month program.
Even exercising cognitive skills at home can help kids strengthen their attention and possibly reduce the effects of ADHD. Here are fun exercises to increase the three types of attention.
- Sustained Attention: Time your child during a small task or homework assignment. If he gets distracted after one minute, give him the goal of focusing for a longer period. Make sure to keep the task game-like with small rewards for successes. Continue adding more time to the goal until he can repeatedly focus for five minutes at a time.
- Selective Attention: Use this same activity but add small distractions as your child tries to stay on task. As he’s able to ignore small diversions, increase the distractions.
- Divided Attention: Use a game with a timing and attention component, such as Simon orPerfection. As he plays, give an additional mentalchallenge. For example, say two numbers and have him give the sum, or have him describe the family dog. This may seem overwhelming, but by setting increasingly tougher goals, a child can strengthen the ability to multi-task.
Although these home-based exercises won’t provide the same results that come with intensive, one-on-one brain training, they can provide some relief – and one more option for families who dread the impending school year because of their personal looming ADHD dilemma.
If you’re one of those parents, before making any back-to-school decisions on ADHD treatment, revisit the research, options, alternatives and side effects, and remember that ADHD is a very real, possibly under-diagnosed, condition with damaging side effects if left untreated.
For more information on the benefits of brain training go to www.learningrx.com/marlboro.