Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a medical condition that makes it difficult to pay attention, remain organized, and listen. Living with the condition can affect relationships, educational pursuits, and careers.
ADHD is more common in childhood, but about 4 percent of American adults also experience symptoms each year. Despite this, less than 20 percent of adults with ADHD get the treatment they need.
Knowing the symptoms can help adults with ADHD access treatment and manage their condition effectively.
What is ADHD?
ADHD makes it difficult to focus, listen, sit still, and be organized. People with ADHD struggle with impulse control and motivation, and may feel the need to be constantly busy.
Those with ADHD may experience relationship problems because of these challenges. Difficulty focusing, for instance, can make it hard to listen to someone else.
Someone with ADHD often struggles with structure in school and may have a higher risk of not completing high school. These problems, in conjunction with organizational and time management difficulties, can undermine their career prospects.
Adults with ADHD are also more vulnerable to mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety disorder.
Researchers are still determining the causes of ADHD, which may include genetics, early experiences, and lifestyle factors.
A 2017 study identified several parts of the brain that behave differently in people with ADHD. These were the regions associated with memory, emotion regulation, motivation, and decision-making.
Other research has found differences in the brain chemistry of people with ADHD, including in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is linked to feelings of reward and motivation.
Adult versus childhood ADHD
Adults who are looking for information on ADHD often find a list of symptoms more relevant to children, such as difficulty paying attention in class, getting in trouble at school, missing homework assignments, and getting low grades.
A classroom is the focal point of most children’s lives, making ADHD easier to detect during childhood. Adults have more control over their everyday situations and may choose careers that conceal the symptoms of ADHD. A patrolling police officer, for instance, may be praised for being active rather than chastised for being unable to sit still.
When a person’s career is affected negatively by ADHD, they may be characterized by others as idle, inattentive, or irresponsible, rather than as coping with an unavoidable medical condition.
Children with ADHD may struggle to remain in their seats, frequently interrupt others, or make inappropriate comments, while adults with ADHD may have developed coping mechanisms to avoid these errors. But a person may be left feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the effort involved in containing these impulses.
Symptoms of adult ADHD include:
- difficulty paying attention to details
- frequently making mistakes
- difficulty focusing, particularly for a sustained period
- difficulty listening or following a story
- failing to follow through on promises or projects
- frequently missing deadlines
- difficulties with organization and tidiness
- disliking or avoiding tasks that need sustained focus
- frequently losing or forgetting things
- being easily distracted by sudden interruptions
- lacking motivation
- frequently fidgeting
- often feeling restless
- having to be in constant motion
- being easily bored
- talking excessively
- interrupting or blurting out answers to questions
- having difficulty waiting
These symptoms can lead to other problems, including:
- Anxiety due to missed deadlines or difficulties at school, work, or in relationships.
- Depression and low self-esteem due to difficulties concentrating, completing projects, or succeeding at work or school.
- Conflict in relationships due to difficulties listening, remembering important details, or following through on promises.
Diagnosis and treatment
No test can objectively determine whether someone has ADHD. Instead, a doctor or mental health counselor will make a diagnosis based on a person’s symptoms.
As part of the diagnostic process, a doctor must rule out other potential causes of someone’s symptoms, such as excessive caffeine consumption, a brain injury, substance abuse, or another mental health condition.
Some health care professionals use computerized tests to measure symptoms of ADHD. For adults who feel uncomfortable discussing their symptoms, these assessments can be helpful for diagnosis. The World Health Organization has created an assessment tool specifically designed for adult ADHD, which is available online.
Treatment for ADHD is usually a combination of lifestyle changes, medication, and therapy. It is possible to see improvements with a single strategy, such as medication, but a combination of treatments is usually recommended.
The most popular drugs for adult ADHD are stimulants, such as methylphenidate and amphetamines. These drugs can calm hyperactive behavior, sharpen focus, and help people with ADHD pay attention for longer.
Some other non-stimulant drugs, such as atomoxetine, may also help. They also have a lower risk of side effects and abuse than stimulants.
People with ADHD should discuss their lifestyle and general health with a doctor, as stimulants may cause cardiovascular problems or complicate existing ones. People should also report any additional side effects and never take more than the prescribed dosage.
Psychotherapy can help adults with ADHD cope with the challenges of the condition. Therapists can recommend lifestyle changes, address negative habits and thoughts, and assist with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions that may accompany ADHD.
Some people with ADHD may benefit from joint counseling with family members or romantic partners. This therapy can improve relationship problems, help people with ADHD discuss conflicts more effectively, and can help a partner or family member understand the challenges of ADHD.
ADHD is a medical condition, so lifestyle changes alone are not a cure. However, some changes can make the symptoms easier to handle.
Strategies that may help include:
- exercising regularly
- limiting caffeine and foods high in sugar
- using a daily planner
- organizational habits, such as always putting keys in the same place
- getting enough sleep
- limiting distractions, such as social media and television, when working
- requesting considerations for ADHD-related symptoms
Talking to colleagues, family, and friends about the challenges of ADHD can help people reduce the frequency and severity of their symptoms. Requesting special considerations, such as, a break in the middle of a long meeting may help combat inattention and restlessness.