Prescription Stimulants Likely Abused By 400,000 US Adults, Study Says

By Beth Leipholtz 04/18/18

A new study found that 16 million US adults use, misuse, and abuse prescription stimulants.

businessman taking a pill

Despite the heavy media scrutiny on the opioid crisis, opioids are not the only prescription medication being misused in the United States. 

A new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that about 5 million Americans are illegally taking prescription stimulants in hopes of increasing concentration and mental stamina.

Stimulants are a class of drugs “associated with heightened dopamine release, which can result in a powerful sense of well-being, increased energy, attention, and alertness,” according to

The study discovered that approximately 16 million Americans older than 18 use prescription stimulants and about 400,000 of those people are likely abusing the medication. 

In the study, prescription stimulants were categorized as medications often prescribed for treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obesity. This includes amphetamines like Adderall and methylphenidate, or Ritalin. 

Though the common perception is that medications like these are often prescribed to children, the study found that more than half (55%) of stimulant prescriptions in 2015 were written for those over age 20. 

“We knew there had been increases,” lead researcher and deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Wilson Compton, told the Washington Times. “But understanding that an awful lot of people over age 18 who take these medications—that most of us think of as predominantly prescribed to children and teenagers.”

The data used in the study was taken from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) for 2015 and 2016. The survey included 102,000 adults over the age of 18 and asked participants if they use or misuse prescriptions for opioids and sedatives. 

For study purposes, misuse was defined as “using a medication without a prescription for a reason other than as directed by a physician or in greater amounts or for longer than prescribed.”

According to the Times, a typical problematic user was described as a single white male from 18 to 49 years old who had a low-income history and no high school diploma. Of those who use prescription stimulants correctly (11 million people), the typical user was described as a woman who had private health insurance. 

Reasons study participants had for using prescription stimulants varied: 56.3% said they used them to concentrate, 21.9% used them as a study aid, 15.5% claimed to take the medications to get high and 4.1% said they used them for weight loss.

Of those who reported misusing the medications, 56.9% said they obtained the medication through a family member or friend who had been prescribed stimulants and 21.8% said they buy or steal the medications from someone they know.

“One of the things to keep in mind is that clinicians need to assess what patients are doing with their medications and to be consistently asking what they’re doing with leftover medications,” Compton told the Times

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.