Adults with ADHD 4 times more likely to develop generalized anxiety disorder

TORONTO, Ontario — Researchers from the University of Toronto have found a significant connection between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Their study finds roughly one in four adults under the age of 40 living with ADHD also had a form of anxiety. Moreover, people with ADHD are four times more likely to develop GAD at some point in their lives in comparison to others without ADHD.

Even after accounting for a variety of potentially influential factors such as socio-demographics, childhood experiences, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions like depression, researchers discovered those with ADHD were still twice as likely to have anxiety.

“These findings underline how vulnerable adults with ADHD are to generalized anxiety disorders,” says lead study author Esme Fuller-Thomson, professor at Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and the director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging, in a media release. “There are many studies linking adult ADHD to depression and suicidality, but less attention has been paid to generalized anxiety disorders and other adverse outcomes across the life course.”

Women at significantly greater risk of anxiety

Study authors identified a number of factors that appear to increase anxiety disorder risk among those with ADHD. One of the most noticeable was being female, as women with ADHD were nearly five times more likely to develop GAD than men with ADHD.

ADHD has been severely under-diagnosed and under-treated in girls and women,” says study co-author Andie MacNeil, a recent Master of Social Work (MSW) graduate from the University of Toronto. “These findings suggest that women with ADHD may also be more susceptible to experiencing anxiety, emphasizing the need for greater support for women with ADHD.”

Additionally, those who experienced traumatic events in their childhood, such as sexual or physical abuse or chronic parental domestic violence, were three times more likely to develop GAD. An astounding 60 percent of all individuals in the study with both ADHD and GAD dealt with at least one traumatic childhood event.

Low income and isolation hurts too

A yearly income below $40,000, having few close relationships, and a lifelong history of major depressive disorders also increased a person’s risk for ADHD and anxiety. For example, people living with ADHD who had dealt with depression for most of their lives were six times more likely to have GAD.

“These results highlight the importance of screening for mental illness and addressing depressive symptoms when providing support to those with ADHD,” comments Lauren Carrique, a social worker at Toronto General Hospital. “Individuals experiencing ADHD, GAD, and depression are a particularly vulnerable subgroup that may need targeted outreach by health professionals.”

Study authors analyzed a nationally representative dataset on 6,898 respondents for this project. They collected information from the Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health and included 272 people with ADHD and 682 with generalized anxiety disorder.

“It is crucial that those with ADHD who are struggling with mental health issues reach out for help from their family doctor or other mental health professional including social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Effective treatments, such as CBT, are available and these can dramatically improve one’s quality of life,” Prof. Fuller-Thomson concludes.

The study appears in the Journal of Affective Disorders. 

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