Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD): No Heart for the Meds?

Drugs and Clinical Trials CategoryThe American Heart Association wants doctors to do an electrocardiogram (EKG) — a measure of heart health — in order to determine whether a child is fit to take stimulant medication for attention deficit disorder (ADD). The AHA recently published this statement online. It says there are conditions that a typical physical exam might not pick up, but that would contraindicate the use of these medications.

There isn’t any proof that stimulant medications have caused heart attacks or stroke, but the AHA wants physicians to evaluate for heart disease. There is the theoretical possibility that structural heart conditions that normally would go undetected, could cause a vulnerability to stimulants. If a structural problem shows up, the child may still be able to take the medications, but would require monitoring.

EKGSome of you are wondering why anyone in their right mind would consider medications when this kind of concern exists. Even if you are well-informed, and not affected by alarmists who compare stimulants to cocaine and meth, you might wonder. For many parents and mental health workers, the answer lies in the problems that children with ADD have that can profoundly affect their development. But, you might argue, look at the successful people who also happen to have ADD. Alas, comes the response, those examples don’t erase what we detect in research. There is even some evidence that children with ADD who received stimulant medication have been less likely to abuse drugs later in life. Presumably, this is because they have had richer developmental experiences and feel less marginalized.

So am I an apologist for Big Pharma? No; I understand that it is a difficult decision in an unpredictable world. But I also know that in speaking with scores of people with ADD over about two years, many have said that they were quite thankful that their parents put them on meds. Many who were not on meds as children said they wished they had been, because they were aware of the connection between their difficulties and the academic, employment, or social problems that they had, or were having.

To really understand this issue, one must delve into a number of topics, such as the kinds of adaptations that work for people with ADD, the similarities between ADD and other conditions, such as deafness, that create a sense of community, the state of research and enlightened opinion on various treatments and supplements for ADD, and issues of identity. Among the most important is the nature of developmental windows, and what is lost when they are not navigated successfully.


Vetter, V.L., Elia, J., Erickson, C., Berger, S., Blum, N., Uzark, K., Webb, C.L. (2008). Cardiovascular Monitoring of Children and Adolescents With Heart Disease Receiving Stimulant Drugs: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young Congenital Cardiac Defects Committee and the Council on Cardiovascular Nursing. Circulation, 117(18), 2407-2423. DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.189473

Further Reading

Best Supplements for ADD are described at ADD Supplements vs. Medication, a page I maintain, based on what people tell me.

  • Ashley

    I would take this one step further- prescribing providers should be regularly monitoring blood pressure, and should not administer ADHD stimulant drugs if the patient readings recorded are out of the appropriate range.

    I’m a college student with ADHD who has been otherwise perfectly healthy- small but healthy weight, exercise and eat healthy, no conditions to speak of, no family history of illness. Recently at the OB/GYN, the nurse taking my blood pressure saw it was high (168/96) for the first time (she checked all past visits and I’m normally 110/70).

    It turns out that the stimulant med I was taking for my ADHD gave me hypertension, despite that I was taking the lowest dose possible. I went to my primary care doc, I saw a cardiologist, I had various tests and procedures done and everyone was frankly in awe that I could have such a high BP, and they could not identify another cause. I barely eat meat, I have a naturally low salt diet, and I only have 1-2 drinks per week (yes, I know this is rare for a college kid, I’m a dork). It just made no sense.

    So I stopped taking the stimulant and lo and behold, a month or so later of monitoring at home and my BP stabilized and is now perfectly normal. I’m having to pull more all-nighters to get assignments done, but at least I am alive.

    However, my case is a lucky one- hypertension is called the ‘silent killer’ for a reason. Most college kids, including those taking stimulants for ADHD, do not get regular check-ups- they only see healthcare providers when they are sick, and could go months or even years without having BP and vitals taken.

    At a minimum, psychiatrists and prescribing physicians should be required to take patients’ vitals 1x per month in order to distribute these schedule II drugs.

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.

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