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Why ADHD Isn't Just for Kids

... and how some get better at managing it with age.

Key points

  • ADHD is not only for kids.
  • ADHD is the result of a malfunction in the brain’s ability to process information.
  • Symptoms in adults exhibit as disorganization and impulsive decision-making.
Alexandr Podvalny / Pexels
Source: Alexandr Podvalny / Pexels

First, the myths:

Now the facts:

  • The preponderance of recent evidence indicates ADHD is chronic across the lifespan
  • Scientists are increasingly in agreement that adults initially diagnosed as having ADHD while young simply become better at adapting to, and even “hiding,” symptoms as they age and “preventing the disorder from interfering with their daily lives.”

A 2017 online article from CHADD—Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—agrees. Coping mechanisms, often coupled with treatment plans, help mitigate ADHD symptoms in adults. However, CHADD experts go a step further, suggesting that the estimated 20 percent of children who seemingly outgrow ADHD when they become adults likely include those who never had the problem in the first place. They were just misdiagnosed.

ADHD is the result of a malfunction in the brain’s ability to process information due to genetics, head injury, exposure to environmental toxins, or other potential causative agents. Key characteristics of the disorder are inattentiveness and lack of concentration, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, or a combination of all these.

In children, ADHD can take the form of fidgeting, uncontrolled bursts of energy, slowed mental development, learning difficulties, and problems socializing with other children. Symptoms in adults present as disorganization, impulsive decision-making, inability to focus on or complete tasks, problems with self-management, and what some experts call “wandering attention” and “internal restlessness.” Oftentimes, adult ADHD is complicated by co-morbid psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, addictive behaviors, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Indeed, up to 10 percent of adults with ADHD also suffer PTSD, statistics show.

ADHD Can “Wax and Wane”

In some of the latest research, published online in an August 2021 edition of The American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers concede patients may experience full or partial remission of ADHD symptoms as they mature into their early 20s, but these periods usually tend to be only temporary, the researchers say. The disorder seems to “fluctuate, waxing and waning,” likely throughout a person’s lifetime. The investigators followed more than 550 children for approximately 16 years, from age 8 to 25. They cite the “high inheritability” of ADHD and the disorder’s “genetic risks” as reasons for ongoing symptom expression in adults.

An earlier paper, in European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, reports some adolescents with ADHD may later recover enough to no longer meet diagnostic criteria for the disorder, but that this remission does not equate to outgrowing it. Patients still “manifest abnormalities in [brain] structure and function” that impact “working memory performance in early adulthood,” the researchers say.

And a psychologist from the University of Washington School of Medicine, Margaret Sibley, who specializes in ADHD, recently told the Washington Post that her own research shows that 90 percent of individuals with diagnosed ADHD continue struggling with elements of the disorder as adults, even though they may experience symptom-free periods.

What if You Never Had It as a Kid?

Is there truly such a disorder as adult-onset ADHD? The jury is still out, although some scientists say that ADHD impairment symptoms acquired as an adult may represent a different form of ADHD or an ADHD-like neurological issue yet to be categorized or explained.

In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, investigators specify marked differences in neurological impairments and symptoms between adults who were diagnosed with ADHD as children and those with reported adult-onset ADHD. “[Our] findings raise the possibility that adults presenting with the ADHD symptom picture may not have a childhood-onset neurodevelopmental disorder. If this finding is replicated, then the disorder’s place in the classification system must be reconsidered, and research must investigate the etiology of adult ADHD,” the authors conclude. An article in the Psychiatric Times concurs, saying, “If adult-onset ADHD does exist, it may not be the same disorder as childhood-onset ADHD.”

Meanwhile, researchers writing in a 2018 edition of the same psychiatry journal indicate, “Individuals seeking treatment for late-onset ADHD may be valid cases; however, more commonly, symptoms represent non-impairing cognitive fluctuations, a comorbid [neurological] disorder, or the cognitive effects of substance use. False-positive late-onset ADHD cases are common without careful assessment.”

Is Modern Society Making All of Us a Little ADHD?

In their book ADHD 2.0, psychiatrists Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey suggest environmental stressors play a crucial role in determining whether or not a person will develop a disease (like ADHD) to which they are genetically predisposed. “Many adults never discover they have ADHD until their environment dramatically changes” such as in the case of a woman who gives birth to her first baby or a young man who graduates college and begins his first career job, they write. Others develop “ADHD-like symptoms caused by the conditions of modern life. Their ‘ADHD’ is a response to the massive increase in stimuli that now bombard our brains and our world,” the authors state.

A concurring study appears in a 2020 edition of Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. In it, the University of California at Los Angeles researchers suggest that frequent use of digital technology can “heighten ADHD symptoms, interfere with emotional and social intelligence, lead to addictive behaviors, increase social isolation, and interfere with brain development and sleep.” On a more positive note, “specific programs, video games, and other online tools may [also] provide mental exercises that activate neural circuitry, improve cognitive functioning, reduce anxiety, increase restful sleep, and offer other brain-health benefits,” they write.

What to Do?

Childhood ADHD? Adult-onset ADHD? A society that can drive us all a bit batty? Is there a magic pill, potion, or even silver bullet that can help resolve all this?

Author and editor Joseph Campbell may have said it best when he wrote, “We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” Those grappling with ADHD—or something akin to ADHD—can “choose to live in joy” by changing their surrounding environment and creating a more positive world for themselves. A few suggestions:

  • Find joy in achievement by focusing on, and completing, one enjoyable task weekly.
  • Connect with other people in your life. Socialize. Make the effort to smile. Accept compliments and give compliments. Be thankful.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise mitigates stress, helps relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and heightens self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Look for another job if your current workplace generates too negative an atmosphere. Life is much too short to spend it doing things that prove stressful and overwhelming.
  • Consider participating in calming meditative activities like yoga. Meditation enables you to see the world differently.
  • Avoid too much high-tech interaction. You know your limits. When you have reached them, walk away from the computer, the iPad, or the phone. Find something far more relaxing to do.

Finally, remember a saying from the Buddha. “We are what we think… With our thoughts, we make the world."

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock

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