Can’t Focus? Maybe It's Adult ADHD

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Can you recognize the signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? (Photo: Stocksy/Ivo De Bruijn)

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is often thought of as a condition that affects kids. After all, symptoms tend to become apparent during the school years, and it’s generally diagnosed around age 7. But the truth is, it can affect adults, too.

In fact, about 4.1 percent of adults in the U.S. have the chronic neurological condition, which is marked by attention problems, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.

While ADHD is a condition that you’re born with, many people aren’t diagnosed until they’re adults — and interestingly enough, it’s often due to their child’s recent diagnosis, says psychiatrist and best-selling author Gail Saltz, MD.

“They’re saying, ‘You know, I was like that in school and I’m still kind of like that,’” Saltz tells Yahoo Health. “It strikes them suddenly that they might be dealing with ADHD and just didn’t know it.”

Saltz also says that she sees a lot of patients who are experiencing breakdowns in their marriages — and ADHD is the hidden culprit. “ADHD can create a real strain on a relationship,” says Saltz. “Many people have come into my office saying they have great difficulty listening, honoring promises they made, being emotionally up and down, or dealing with the other spouse saying, ‘I’m constantly nagging them to do things and they just don’t do it!”

The condition has been in the news recently, too, with a Danish study showing that people with ADHD are twice as likely to die prematurely compared with those without it. Accidents are the most common cause of death, and people diagnosed in adulthood are more at risk. “Our findings emphasize the importance diagnosing ADHD early, especially in girls and women, and treating any co-existing antisocial and substance use disorders,” lead study author Søren Dalsgaard from Aarhus University, explains in a statement.

Related: What I Wish I’d Known About Girls With ADHD

So How Do You Know If It’s ADHD?

Figuring out if you (or your loved one) has this condition can be somewhat of a challenge. “Like with all clinical diagnoses, there is no blood test or brain scan,” says Saltz. “So the question is, do you have enough of these symptoms, are they truly interfering with your functioning and have you ruled out other conditions that could likely be the cause?”

Since ADHD begins in childhood, it’s also imperative to look back at your past actions. “If this seems to be a recent onset of behaviors, you would need to look at other causes,” she adds. “For example, your symptoms could be the reaction to a new medication or to a current life situation that is exceedingly stressful.”

Then there’s the fact that ADHD is not a one-size-fits-all condition. “ADHD is a bit of a junk pile term,” she explains. “Someone might be higher on the issue of impulsivity, whereas someone else might be having a problem with distractibility. While they’re both features of ADHD, not every kid or adult looks the same.”

And then there’s the issue that most people (meaning those with and without ADHD) have some of the typical symptoms of the condition — and may even refer to them as personality quirks. “This is the case with almost all psychiatric diagnoses, in short of the psychotic disorders,” states Saltz. “These are ‘normal’ features that can occur in everybody.” However, the common traits in ADHD, like being disorganized, being easily distracted, or feeling antsy, shouldn’t come at the expense of your job or relationships.

Related: Quirk Or OCD? How To Tell The Difference

Saltz uses disorganization as an example. For adults, being disorganized “can be work-affecting and family-affecting,” she explains. “Are you keeping up with your house, with the bills and with what your kids are doing? If not, that could indicate a problem.” And if your lack of organization skills are causing you to miss work appointments and deadlines, this may also be a reason for concern, as opposed to someone who maintains a messy desk but seems to function in their dysfunction.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has ADHD, it’s important to be aware of the three subtypes: Primarily Inattentive Type, Primarily Hyperactive/Impulsive Type, and Combined Type. “Patients usually have some amount of both, but one trait tends to dominate,” says Saltz. Here are the symptoms to be on the lookout for with each type:

ADHD—Primarily Inattentive Type:

  • Neglects details and makes careless mistakes

  • Has difficulty listening and sustaining attention

  • Highly disorganized

  • Struggles to follow instructions

  • Continuously distracted 

  • Forgetful

“With the person whose predominant symptom is distractibility, I think of the dog in the movie Up who says, ‘Squirrel!’” says Saltz. “It’s the type of person who will be engaged in something and they’ll think, ‘Oh, that just caught my eye and now that just caught my eye.’”

ADHD—Primarily Hyperactive/Impulsive Type:

  • Fidgets with hands or feet

  • Has difficulty sitting for a period of time

  • Talks excessively

  • Interrupts others often

  • Struggles in circumstances that require waiting

“If impulsiveness is your bigger symptom, you could have angry outbursts and you’ll find that you can’t really control your emotions or your decision-making,” she says. “It could seem that things could escalate quickly without your control. Also, the hyperactivity part often dissipates with age, so adults are less likely to deal with this symptom.”

ADHD—Combined Type: Shows traits under both categories.

“ADHD is not a disorder of an inability to attend,” says Saltz. “It’s a disorder of the ability to regulate when you attend. So what doesn’t work properly is your switch to say, ‘Now I want to be paying attention,’ and ‘Now it doesn’t matter if I’m paying attention.’”

If you have dealt with a number of these symptoms since childhood, Saltz recommends seeking an evaluation from either a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in ADHD.

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