Overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are widely debated, fueled by variations in prevalence estimates across countries, time, and broadening diagnostic criteria. We conducted a meta-analysis to: establish a benchmark pooled prevalence for ADHD; examine whether estimates have increased with publication of different editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); and explore the effect of study features on prevalence.
Medline, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Embase, and Web of Science were searched for studies with point prevalence estimates of ADHD. We included studies of children that used the diagnostic criteria from DSM-III, DSM-III-R and DSM-IV in any language. Data were extracted on sampling procedure, sample characteristics, assessors, measures, and whether full or partial criteria were met.
The 175 eligible studies included 179 ADHD prevalence estimates with an overall pooled estimate of 7.2% (95% confidence interval: 6.7 to 7.8), and no statistically significant difference between DSM editions. In multivariable analyses, prevalence estimates for ADHD were lower when using the revised third edition of the DSM compared with the fourth edition (P = .03) and when studies were conducted in Europe compared with North America (P = .04). Few studies used population sampling with random selection. Most were from single towns or regions, thus limiting generalizability.
Our review provides a benchmark prevalence estimate for ADHD. If population estimates of ADHD diagnoses exceed our estimate, then overdiagnosis may have occurred for some children. If fewer, then underdiagnosis may have occurred.