Diabetes and ADHD: The Correlation is High
Diabetes and ADHD, as surprising as it might first seem, are connected. Indeed, when a child has diabetes, their chances of having ADHD increase. This does not mean, however, that diabetes causes ADHD. The relationship between ADHD and diabetes isn’t cause-and-effect. It’s a correlation, which means that there is a definite relationship between them, but there isn’t a direct link.
If diabetes doesn’t cause ADHD (and, likewise, if ADHD doesn’t cause diabetes), what is their connection, and why is it important to understand? Exploring the relationship between the two will help you know what to be aware of so you can prevent problems by properly managing both.
The Correlation between ADHD and Diabetes: What and Why?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is common in children with type 1 diabetes. Typically, the ADHD that frequently occurs with diabetes is the inattentive type. Problems focusing and remembering information are much more common than hyperactivity among kids, adolescents, and adults with type 1 diabetes.
Studies have shown that children with type 1 diabetes are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children without diabetes. According to Elliot LeBow (2016), a certified diabetes educator, diabetes-focused therapist, presenter, and author of diabetes-related books, “[Many] people diagnosed [with type 1 diabetes] before age 17 have some level of ADHD with a predominately inattentive presentation.”
One caveat to the research-based observation that children with ADHD are more frequently diagnosed with diabetes is that these children typically have more opportunities to be observed by medical professionals.
Diabetes requires frequent doctor visits, which means that if someone does have ADHD, a doctor is likely to notice it. Children who visit the doctor infrequently may have ADHD that goes undiagnosed. This is a possibility to keep in mind, but it doesn’t mean that there is no correlation between ADHD and diabetes.
Age matters. The younger someone is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, the more chance they have of experiencing more severe difficulties:
- Markedly decreased ability to pay attention
- Reduced information processing speed
- Difficulties with both short- and long-term memory
- Decreased executive functioning
- Decreased self-monitoring abilities
Knowing the connection can help parents, teachers, doctors, and caregivers watch for the development of ADHD symptoms and minimize their negative effect on the child’s functioning ("ADHD and Diabetes Symptoms Can Look Similar").
While most of the focus has been on type 1 diabetes and ADHD, researchers also study the connection between type 2 diabetes and ADHD. Teens and young adults with ADHD appear to be at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes than their agemates without ADHD. As before, this is a correlation rather than a cause-and-effect relationship. Now that a connection has been identified, further studies will attempt to discover the reason for this relationship.
Blood sugar plays a role in diabetes and ADHD. When blood sugar is chronically high (hyperglycemia) or chronically low (hypoglycemia), or swings between the two extremes are frequent, brain development can be negatively affected. Such severe effects of diabetes’s blood sugar problems can include physical changes in the brain itself, such as frontal lobe scarring or a decrease in gray matter. The earlier the diagnosis of type 1, the more extreme these effects can become. The changes in the brain are linked to the development of ADHD.
Given that the effects of diabetes impact the brain and contribute to ADHD, is it possible for a baby’s brain to be affected before even being born? Quite possibly, yes.
Gestational Diabetes and Later Development of ADHD
Just as there’s a correlation between diabetes in a child and the development of ADHD, studies show that it’s possible that gestational diabetes, or diabetes that develops during pregnancy and disappears a few weeks after childbirth, might be a contributing factor to the later development of ADHD in the child. Factors such as diabetes medication, the degree to which the mother’s blood sugar levels were controlled, and lifestyle components such as diet and exercise can influence later development of ADHD.
Conditions in gestational diabetes that have been found to increase a child’s risk of developing ADHD include:
- The use of diabetes medication (usually insulin) for more than two months during pregnancy
- High blood sugar in the mother
- Unmanaged or poorly controlled diabetes
Studies have indicated that when a mother has gestational diabetes or type 2 diabetes and blood sugar is uncontrolled or she takes insulin for more than two months, her child’s risk of developing ADHD increases by 23% (Medscape, 2016).
This correlation between gestational diabetes and ADHD doesn’t mean that someone with one will automatically develop the other. By understanding the correlation, it’s possible to make changes that can decrease risk and improve quality of life.
Peterson, T. (2019, January 8). Diabetes and ADHD: The Correlation is High, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, April 7 from https://www.healthyplace.com/diabetes/mental-health/diabetes-and-adhd-the-correlation-is-high