Is it Possible for ADHD to Develop in Adulthood?

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Some people insist that they've developed signs of attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adulthood rather than childhood, but can the condition develop later in life? Take the 48-year-old woman who's recently had problems concentrating and remembering things. She wonders if she's exhibiting the hallmark symptoms of ADHD, especially in terms of inattention.

So what's the case with adults who feel scattered and overwhelmed, particularly if they don't feel they exhibited these symptoms when they were younger. Does this mean they've developed ADHD as an adult or is something else at play? With this overview, learn more about the onset of the disorder, and what it means to develop ADHD-like symptoms later in life.

ADHD: A Childhood Medical Condition

ADHD is a neurobehavioral condition that develops in childhood. In order to meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis, some symptoms that cause impairment must be present in childhood. This means, no, ADHD does not develop in adulthood.

Sometimes ADHD is hard to diagnose, as symptoms can present so differently from person to person. These symptoms can even show up in different ways as a person ages. Thus, someone may not be diagnosed with the disorder until later in life, even though, in retrospect, it is clear that symptoms did exist at an earlier life stage.

ADHD Over the Lifespan

How do 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 are more disruptive.

Symptoms of inattention tend to become more noticeable when a child gets older, enters grade school, and faces increased demands for sustained focus. Whereas 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, and respond quickly to questions posed by the teacher.

Adolescence can bring on a whole new set of challenges as a teenager becomes 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 projects and tasks, and think carefully about potentially risky behavior. Issues such as impulsivity and lack of attention can result in more obviously negative outcomes ranging from teen pregnancy to reckless driving.

Some people are able to manage symptoms with lots of support and coping strategies, but the impairments are still there. It may be that the symptoms aren't recognized until adolescence or even adulthood. The point is that for a person to be accurately diagnosed with ADHD, some symptoms must be present in childhood.

The Bottom Line

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

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