ADHD has historically been defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder that is present since childhood (at least since age 12, according to the current DSM-5). Researchers are now turning their attention to the possibility of ADHD arising in adulthood in people who were not affected by it in childhood. WHAT?!!!
In studies done in Brazil, New Zealand and the U.K. they found that the majority of adult ADHD cases appeared to occur in adults without a history of childhood ADHD. Authors of all 3 studies suggested that childhood and adult ADHD could have different root causes and that adult ADHD may not represent a neurodevelopmental disorder. So what the heck is it?
Of course there are those adults who, as children, slipped through the cracks and were not diagnosed with ADHD. This is often the case with inattentive ADHD and with milder cases of ADHD. As demands of adulthood increase the individual may not be able to compensate and the challenges associated with ADHD become more apparent.
There are also other conditions and situations that can cause symptoms that look like ADHD. Trauma, head injury, stress, sleep problems, digestive issues, hormone imbalance, lack of exercise, and many other medical and lifestyle conditions cause symptoms such as inattention, impulsivity, and problems with motivation that can be part of an ADHD profile.
As a psychologist I work with military veterans. Many of these men and women have PTSD. The symptoms of PTSD, whether from exposure to stressors of war or other trauma, can look like ADHD. Many of them respond well to medications that are used to treat ADHD. But often they had no prior markers in childhood to suggest they had ADHD.
Dr. Thomas Brown has also talked about events and conditions, such as menopause, which can trigger symptoms that meet diagnostic criteria for ADHD. Again, these individuals often do not have a childhood history to suggest they had ADHD, but they meet criteria and respond well to medication intervention. But in this day and age, everyone does better with a little bit of stimulant in their system- whether it’s a Starbucks addiction or Adderall.
I’ve heard people say repeatedly, “We live in an ADHD world.” Meaning that the demands on our attention (mostly from technology) have increased to the point that we all have problems that “look like ADHD.” Getting a diagnosis of ADHD at any age should not be equated with getting a pill to cure the symptoms. It should be an indication that we need to manage aspects of our lives and health more intentionally.