Is it Possible to Develop ADHD in Adulthood?

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How can an adult who feels newly scattered, inattentive, restless, or overwhelmed know if attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is to blame? This is a particularly challenging question for adults who don't feel they exhibited symptoms when they were younger as, most often, ADHD gets diagnosed in childhood.

Does this mean they've developed ADHD as an adult, was it missed when they were a kid, or is something else at play? With this overview, learn more about what ADHD is, the onset and progression of the disorder, and what it means to develop ADHD-like symptoms later in life.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that develops in childhood. Key symptoms of the condition may include lack of focus, difficulty controlling impulses, challenges with organization, struggles with paying attention, and/or hyperactivity.

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown but many medical studies have shown a strong genetic component and pinpoint developmental impairment of the brain's executive function as a key component. As such, the condition tends to run in families. Environmental factors and homelife may worsen (or improve) symptoms but do not cause ADHD. Instead, it is thought to be a purely brain-based disorder.

There is no "cure" for ADHD but treatments, including medications, behavioral therapy, and other supports, can help a great deal. While some grow out of ADHD, most do not. A minority see their symptoms lessen as they get older. According to the ADHD advocacy and support group Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), 11% of school children have ADHD and the disorder continues into adulthood 75% of the time. For the majority, ADHD is a lifelong condition.

Can You Get ADHD as an Adult?

The short answer is, no, adults don't suddenly get ADHD. In order to meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis, several symptoms that cause impairment must be present in childhood. Specifically, signs of ADHD need to be evident before age 12. This means, technically, ADHD does not develop in adulthood.

In other words, if you have ADHD as an adult, you also had it as a child. Conversely, if you definitely did not present with these symptoms as a child, then your current symptoms may be the result of something else, such as depression, anxiety, or another mood disorder.

However, ADHD is sometimes hard to diagnose, as symptoms can present quite differently from person to person and it is diagnosed largely through observation rather than with more concrete means, such as a blood test or other physical markers. As an adult seeking diagnosis, it's possible that no one knew to look for ADHD, and you might have had it all along. ADHD symptoms can also manifest in different ways as a person ages. For example, in younger children, hyperactivity may present as an inability to sit still, while adults may simply seem restless.

Additionally, some people with ADHD find ways of coping that can mask their symptoms, such as using a fidget, using organizational supports, incorporating lots of physical activity into their schedules, or consuming a lot of caffeine, which acts similarly (although to a lesser degree) to prescribed stimulant medications, such as Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine).

As a result, someone may not be diagnosed with the disorder until later in life.

How Symptoms of ADHD Change Over Time

Symptoms of ADHD may emerge as early as the preschool years, particularly if a child displays the hyperactive and impulsive type of symptoms. These behaviors tend to get noticed earlier simply because they tend to be more disruptive. Signs of inattention can easily be missed, however, as these children may be quietly unfocused or able to do well without having to pay close attention.

Symptoms of inattention tend to become more noticeable when a child gets older, particularly after entering grade school, which requires increasing demands for sustained focus. While very young children are encouraged to move around in the classroom setting and learn through physical activity and play, older children are expected to sit still, listen attentively, maintain ever-greater self-control, and respond quickly to questions posed by the teacher.

Adolescence can bring on a whole new set of challenges as teenagers become more and more responsible for self-management while expectations, responsibilities, and academic and social pressures increase. Often ADHD symptoms become more pronounced when teens are expected to organize their own time, plan ahead to complete ever-larger projects and tasks, and think carefully about potentially risky behavior. Issues such as impulsivity, lack of attention, and poor self-esteem can result in more obviously negative outcomes, including drug use, teen pregnancy, and reckless driving.

In adulthood, some people notice a lessening of symptoms, while others still experience them to a similar degree. However, often the symptoms of ADHD in adults look less like the kid who seems driven by a motor and more like a person who is forgetful, restless, easily distracted, and/or overly reactive to frustration. Similar treatment options, including medication and behavioral therapy, are available for adults and offer good results for many with ADHD. The key is to make sure you are accurately diagnosed by consulting a doctor with experience treating patients with ADHD.

A Word From Verywell

If you suddenly experience symptoms in adulthood that seem similar to ADHD but you have never experienced before, it's unlikely that ADHD is the issue. Be sure to talk with your doctor about your concerns about memory, inattention, or other troublesome symptoms. There are certain conditions of adulthood that can look a bit like ADHD, including depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and even menopause.

Once you have an accurate diagnosis, you'll likely feel better knowing what is really going on and can then put your energy into pursuing effective treatment options.

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