ADHD is often thought of as a “kids’ condition” as it’s so closely associated with breathless children racing around a classroom and being unable to sit still. But ADHD can impact adults too, and its effects can be devastating.
What Is ADHD?
ADHD, which stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, “is commonly mistaken as a disorder that only affects school-aged children, but it’s increasingly being understood as a lifelong disorder that persists into adulthood and can also develop in adulthood,” says Dr. Michael Cooper, associate medical director at Valera Health, a provider of personalized, virtual behavioral health care services based in Brooklyn, New York.
ADHD in adults is a little different than in children, explains Emily Eckstein, vice president of regional operations for Los Angeles-based Lightfully Behavioral Health, a mental health care provider. “While often the hyperactivity one experiences in youth dissipates in adulthood, both impulsivity and restlessness can continue,” she says.
ADHD is often overlooked in adults, meaning that many go undiagnosed, Eckstein says. But “their presenting symptoms have the potential to cause chaos in their lives.”
“It not only negatively affects school performance, but also careers and relationships,” Cooper says. Many times, people with ADHD also have depression, anxiety and substance abuse problems because untreated ADHD symptoms can have a pervasive impact on their lives.
Dr. Eugene Arnold, professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus explains that ADHD often causes problems with:
— Paying attention.
— Being able to shift your attention when you need to.
— Focusing on what you’re doing and finishing tasks.
— Controlling impulses.
— Controlling motor activity.
Adult ADHD Symptoms
In adults specifically, these symptoms of ADHD can show up in certain ways, Cooper says. These include:
— An inability to focus on one task for an extended period of time.
— Being unable to start or follow-through on projects that require planning.
— Significant difficulties with time management.
— Trouble staying organized.
— Excessive daydreaming.
— Interrupting others.
— An inability to pay attention during conversation.
While these symptoms of ADHD in adults are common, Eckstein notes that “symptoms present differently in everyone. While some individuals may exhibit restlessness, others may struggle more so in interpersonal relationships.”
“Historically, ADHD has been diagnosed more often in male patients,” Eckstein says. She also notes that it’s “not a permanent condition but instead, one that can show up in a different way throughout the different life cycles.” ADHD symptoms can completely disappear as you age.
“ADHD is diagnosed after taking a careful and thorough medical and psychiatric history,” Cooper says.
“There are nine symptoms of inattention listed in the diagnostic manual,” Arnold adds. Six of these relate to hyperactivity and three are related to impulsiveness. “All of these symptoms can be manifested by another disorder,” he says.
For example, chronic sleep deprivation and mood disorders such as depression can produce many of the same symptoms. Bipolar disorder is characterized by hyperactive behavior, restlessness and impulsiveness. All of this overlap with other conditions can make arriving at a definitive diagnosis of ADHD difficult for some patients. This makes ADHD “a diagnosis of exclusion,” he adds.
“Clinicians must ensure that symptoms concerning for ADHD aren’t better explained by other medical or psychiatric conditions,” Cooper says. This can sometimes be accomplished by speaking with family members or significant others, as they’re often the first people to notice symptoms.
In addition, “inquiring about whether the patient also struggled with these symptoms in grade school can be illuminating, as signs of ADHD are often but not always present in childhood,” Cooper explains.
Eckstein notes that in some cases, “adults maintain a diagnosis of ADHD without a proper diagnostic evaluation, leading to dependence on stimulant medication that is not needed.” So, making sure you’ve got the right diagnosis at all stages of life is important.
When to See a Doctor for ADHD
If you or a loved one are struggling with symptoms of ADHD and they’ve become disruptive to your work or social life, it’s definitely time to speak with a doctor. “Like any untreated mental health condition, when symptoms become significant enough to impair daily function and impede one’s professional and personal relationships, it’s time to seek specialized support,” Eckstein says.
While ADHD can cause major disruptions to your life, “it’s a very treatable condition,” Cooper says. Medications that can help include:
— Stimulants. Adderall (a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) or Ritalin (methylphenidate) are both central nervous system stimulants that can help regulate brain chemicals related to thinking and attention. While Ritalin is commonly prescribed in children, Adderall, at least according to one 2018 study, seems to work better for adults with ADHD.
— Nonstimulants. Wellbutrin (bupropion), Strattera (atomoxetine) or Intuniv (guanfacine) are all nonstimulant medications that have cognition-enhancing effects for some people.
“There are also non-medication-based approaches, such as psychotherapy behavioral modifications and meditation that can sometimes be effective for ADHD alone or in combination with medications,” Cooper says.
It’s important to seek treatment, he adds, noting that “adults who have their ADHD treated can have a better quality of life and lower risk of developing depression, anxiety and substance abuse compared to adults with untreated ADHD,” Cooper says.
If you do visit with a doctor, Cooper recommends being sure to “let your doctor know about all your symptoms, even those symptoms that you might not automatically attribute to ADHD,” such as difficulty sleeping or fatigue, “so they can get a full picture of your situation and decide how to best help you.”
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Update 04/27/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.