For the first time, researchers have found a correlation between living at higher altitudes in the U.S. and lower attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) rates. The results point to the possibility of altitude-related approaches to the treatment of the condition. Looking at the population survey data for 2007 and 2010 and adjusting for other ADHD risk factors, the researchers found that the state-wide ADHD rates decreased by 0.001 percent for each one-foot rise in the average state altitude in both years. Looking at altitude alone, it is a 6.3 percent lower rate of ADHD. As these statistics relate to the incidence of ADHD, the effect of the reduction can be dramatic. For example, in Rhode Island, with an average height of 210 feet, 10.3 percent of children are estimated to diagnose ADHD. In Utah, with an average elevation of 6.364 feet, the approximate rate is just 5.3 percent. Among the equal number of children in each province, almost twice as many are predicted to have ADHD in Rhode Island. ADHD is associated with abnormally low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Essential for motor, motivational and reward processes in the brain, dopamine serves
as a chemical trigger in the brain in the presence of oxygen. Since oxygen is rarer at higher altitudes, researchers believe that high-level dopamine production levels can help protect children from developing ADHD.
According to the researchers, it is also likely that regional variations in ADHD concentrations are influenced by the strength of sunlight in higher elevated states. Previous research has indicated that sun exposure can control ADHD-associated interruptions to the internal clocks that set our sleep schedules. Researchers warn that more work is required to support higher altitudes as a potential ADHD safety factor. Population-based ADHD studies have varied in their results, indicating several risk factors, including gender, low birth weight (found to be a risk factor in this study), pregnancy complications, and prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol.
Such variance indicates that the factors that produce ADHD are complicated and can overlap. If further research shows that higher altitudes tend to minimize the rates of ADHD, this will illustrate the potential for environmental treatment for the condition. Currently, ADHD in the U.S. is largely treated with stimulant drugs that target brain dopamine levels and can have side effects such as sluggish development, anxiety, aggression, and insomnia.