U of U study indicates Utah’s high altitude linked to low rate of ADHD

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SALT LAKE CITY -- For years, research has shown that Utah has some of the lowest rates of children with ADHD in the nation, and the findings from a study at the University of Utah may shed some light on the reason.

A recent study linked Utah’s high rates of depression and suicide to the state’s elevation, and local doctors took that information as a sign that elevation likely effected other mental illnesses—and it turns out they may be right.

"It's very speculative, and it's kind of a new idea to use two very large data sets that were very carefully conducted to see if we could replicate the finding, and in fact we did it,” said Douglas G. Kondo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and the senior author of the study.

Researchers like Kondo are spending their days trying to better understand some of our nation's most prevalent mental health issues. According to the American Psychiatric Association, ADHD is the most common psychiatric disorder among children.

"There's a lot of alarm about the number of kids who are being treated, and can it really be true in 11 percent, in some places 15 to 20 percent of kids in high school,” Kondo said.

In Salt Lake City and at 4,300 feet, The ADHD rate is 38 percent lower than areas at sea level. Researchers believe that thinner air lowers serotonin and raises dopamine levels in the brain.

"ADHD is a natural thing to think about because most, if not all, of the FDA approved medicines to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder work through the dopamine system in the brain,” Kondo said.

In fact, all of the mountain west states--Utah, Nevada and Colorado--Rated below average for the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD. Nevada, with an average at 5,517 feet above sea level, had the lowest percentage at 5.6 percent while Utah came in at 6.7 percent.

States with an average closer to sea level had the highest percentages. North Carolina, average 869 feet above sea level, had a 15.6 percent rate.

“This is one small building block to our understanding of what causes ADHD and how we might treat it moving forward,” Kondo said.

The decreasing ADHD at elevation doesn't mean people need to start moving to the mountains, but experts said the research results do have potential implications for treating the disorder. The findings were published in the Journal of Attention Disorders online.