The Grapevine

ADHD Diagnoses In High-Altitude Mountain States Far Less Common

Salt Lake City, Utah
The prevalence of ADHD dramatically decreases at higher altitudes, with all the Mountain states showing lower than average diagnosis rates. Reuters

University of Utah researchers say the prevalence of ADHD dramatically decreases at higher altitudes.

Is it time to move to the mountains? After all, the mortality rate is significantly lower for permanent residents living in high altitudes, yet life up high has been shown to increase leptin and other hormones involved in appetite control and so suppress hunger. In turn, obesity risk is cut in half way up high. However, scientists have also discovered a drawback or two. As people climb to higher altitudes, their blood pressure rises progressively, a circumstance which influences the effectiveness of medication. Even worse, recent research links the thin air of high elevations to increased rates of depression and suicide.

For the current study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Douglas G. Kondo, assistant professor of psychiatry, considered two independent scientific findings. Past studies have demonstrated that we produce higher levels of dopamine in response to lower oxygen in the air at higher elevations. It is also known that decreased dopamine levels are linked to ADHD.

Considering both of these, Kondo and his team wondered, Does altitude affect rates of ADHD?

Mental Illness and Altitude

To answer this, the researchers collected information on average state elevations derived from NASA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and then sifted through data from two national health surveys. In 2007, the National Survey on Children’s Health contacted 91,642 households and found that 73,123 children between the ages of 4 and 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD. Similarly, the 2010 National Survey of Children with Special Healthcare Needs contacted 372,689 households and discovered 40,242 children in the same age range with a diagnosis of ADHD.

After analyzing the numbers against average elevations, the researchers discovered prevalence of ADHD decreases with increasing altitude. Low elevation states had the highest percentage of kids diagnosed with ADHD, while high elevation states had the lowest percentage.

Specifically, 15.6 percent of children in North Carolina, where the average elevation is 869 feet above sea level, had been diagnosed with ADHD. Delaware, Louisiana, and Alabama — all states with an average elevation of less than 1,000 feet — followed closely behind North Carolina with high percentages of ADHD.

By comparison, just 5.6 percent of children in Nevada, where elevation averages 5,517 feet above sea level, had been diagnosed with ADHD. Similarly, all of the Mountain West states rated well below average.

Speaking to The Salt Lake Tribune, Kondo noted that everyone knows high altitudes affect not just the physicality but also the mentality of mountain climbers, makes their thinking go "haywire," so the link between altitude and mental illness should appear obvious. “It's so basic and fundamental, it strains credulity that someone wouldn't have thought of it before,” he said, adding in a press release, “In the case of ADHD, altitude may be a protective factor.”

Source: Huber RS, Kim TS, Kim N, et al. Association Between Altitude and Regional Variation of ADHD in Youth. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2015.

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