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The grown-ups’ guide to ADHD

5 minute read
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Adults can have ADHD, too — but you may not even know. Here, we answer your top 5 questions about this common condition and how to cope. 

Nancy Fitzgerald

By Nancy Fitzgerald

Are you having trouble focusing during meetings? Are you making snap decisions you later regret? Are you drifting from one project to another — with nothing much to show for it? These are all possible signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even if you’re a grown-up, you just might have it.

“Half the children who have ADHD when they’re little go on to have it when they grow up,” explains Lenard Adler, MD. He’s a clinical psychiatrist, professor of psychiatry and director of the Adult ADHD Program at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “That’s about 8 to 10 million adults, which makes ADHD the second-most common mental health disorder after depression.”

And those numbers have been growing. A study published in JAMA Network Open showed that the number of adults diagnosed with ADHD has grown by over 50% in the past decade.

One reason ADHD is so common: genetics. If you have a son or daughter who’s been diagnosed with ADHD, there’s a chance you could have it, too. In families who had a child with ADHD, as many as 55% also had at least 1 parent with the condition, according to a study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Maybe you’ve had ADHD all your life — but you’re only just beginning to realize it.

“To have a diagnosis of adult ADHD, you have to have roots of the disorder during your childhood, even if you were not diagnosed with ADHD at the time but had significant symptoms,” says Dr. Adler. “What brings people into my clinic is often learning that their child has ADHD. Or sometimes a spouse may point out the problem, or they’ve realized something’s wrong when they take on more responsibility at work.”

So what exactly is adult ADHD — and what can you do about it? We focus on your big questions here.

Is ADHD the same for adults as it is for kids?

Not necessarily, says Brenna Renn, PhD. She’s a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “We don’t see the same hyperactivity that we see in children. Adults won’t be bouncing off the walls like 5-year-olds, but they may be feeling restless. And they’ll probably have some problems with paying attention and concentrating.” (Try these steps to help children with ADHD prepare for school.)

Some of the most common ADHD symptoms in adults include:

  • Distractibility: Do you zone out at work or at home, passing time by daydreaming and internet browsing?
  • Impulsivity: Do you make spur-of-the-moment decisions or speak your mind without considering the consequences?
  • Hyperactivity: Do you find yourself fidgeting, tapping your feet or taking countless trips to the bathroom or kitchen?
  • Memory lapses: Do you leave your family and co-workers in the lurch by constantly missing deadlines and forgetting appointments?
  • Social slip-ups: Do you interrupt people, talk nonstop or seem to not listen when spoken to directly?

“Everybody does some of these things some of the time,” says Dr. Adler. “But if you find you’re doing them consistently — and it’s having a negative impact on your life — you may want to do something about it.”

So I’m a little distracted. Why does it matter?

ADHD can impair your life in lots of ways. “Adults with untreated ADHD are more likely to be divorced, change jobs, earn less money and get into car accidents,” says Dr. Adler. Research shows that they may be more likely to have drug and alcohol problems and be involved in more conflicts. “Plus, people with ADHD have higher rates of depression,” says Dr. Adler. “That just highlights how important it is to get a correct diagnosis.”

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I think I might have some of those symptoms. What should I do?

First, don’t make an armchair diagnosis. Let a professional help you figure out what’s going on. “Everybody needs to have a thorough assessment, starting with their primary care doctor,” advises Renn. “What you think is ADHD might be a medical concern, such as a thyroid problem. And sometimes, depression can masquerade as ADHD.”

Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and may send you to a psychologist or another behavioral health specialist to pin down the problem and get you started on a treatment.

If I have ADHD, will I ever feel better?

Yes. “ADHD is a treatable condition,” says Dr. Adler. “If you’re professionally diagnosed, you can expect treatments that are similar to those for kids. There’s hope out there — with the right treatment, you can feel so much better.”

What kind of treatment can I expect?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing ADHD. Yet treatment can typically include medication, therapy or both, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). You’ll work with your doctor and care team to find the right fit for you.

  • Medications. There are 2 categories: stimulants and non-stimulants. Stimulants are the most common type of ADHD medication that’s prescribed, according to the NIMH. They are thought to boost brain chemicals that help with focus and concentration. Common stimulant medications include Ritalin® (methylphenidate) and Adderall® (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine).

    For some, stimulants aren’t effective. Or their side effects are just too bothersome. In that case, your doctor may prescribe a non-stimulant medication such as Strattera® (atomoxetine). While these medications can take longer to work, they can still help improve ADHD symptoms.
  • Therapy. While working with a behavioral health specialist such as a psychologist or a licensed social worker may not help with the core symptoms of ADHD, they can help you cope, says the NIMH. Maybe you’ll learn strategies for managing your time or dealing with negative feelings you experience with ADHD.

    “You’ll usually have about 10 to 15 sessions with a therapist, who will teach you how to pay attention and stay in charge of your emotions,” Dr. Adler explains. “You’ll be able to start making changes right away that will help you in a concrete way.”

If the symptoms of ADHD are taking a toll on you, know that you’re not alone. Talk to your health care provider about your concerns and what treatments might work for you. This can help you get back to focusing on what’s important in life. And if you need extra support coping with a new diagnosis, our team of mental health professionals can help you right from the comfort of home. Learn how to get started.

Additional sources

What you need to know about adult ADHD: National Institute of Mental Health
ADHD symptoms: Mayo Clinic
Trends in the number of people with ADHD: JAMA Network Open (2019). “Trends in the prevalence and incidence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder among adults and children of different racial and ethnic groups
ADHD in parents of children with the condition: Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment (2016). “Occurrence of ADHD in parents of ADHD children in a clinical sample