When you think about ADHD, you probably think of school children. But even though most all the attention surrounding ADHD has to do with school-aged children, about half of those who suffer from ADHD will hold on to their symptoms through adulthood. And when it comes to ADHD in seniors, deficits that were manageable at an earlier age can quickly spiral out of control or may even disguise the symptoms of a neurodegenerative disease.
ADHD is something a person is born with—it’s not a condition that suddenly develops later in life. That means seniors who have ADHD have suffered from those symptoms ever since they were a child. However, because ADHD only earned formal recognition by the American Psychiatric Association during the late 1960’s, seniors have had few opportunities for diagnosis.
Enduring a lifetime of undiagnosed ADHD isn’t good news. That’s because when you become old enough to be in the running for a neurodegenerative disorder, it’s likely your physician will see your ADHD symptoms as part of the early stages of dementia. This makes misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment almost inevitable. For people with undiagnosed ADHD who start to develop dementia, the deficits that appear may seem particularly severe, which can lead your doctor to pursue the wrong treatment.
Symptoms of ADHD in Adults
This problem is made more complicated by the fact that there is no brain scan or blood test that can reveal ADHD. Psychologists determine whether you have ADHD by looking for behavioral markers and performing tests to measure your cognitive performance. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of normal aging, like memory problems, can mimic the symptoms of ADHD and the deficits of early dementia. That means physicians who are trying to sort out which symptoms belong to which conditions end up with an unenviable puzzle on their hands.
So how do you spot ADHD? Left untreated, ADHD typically leaves a person leading a fairly hectic life. They may have problems with their executive functions, which include organizational skills, prioritizing tasks, and keeping track of details. Other symptoms include lacking focus, becoming easily distracted, failing to notice details, or becoming hyper-focused. While just about anyone can struggle with organization or become distracted from time to time, when ADHD is at fault, symptoms are persistent and intrusive.
Aging with ADHD
As you get older, both your body and brain undergo changes. For women, aging brings with it a rapid drop in estrogen levels. Reductions in estrogen mean reductions in dopamine, norepinephrine, and cognitive function. As a consequence, women with ADHD see their symptoms become more severe around the age of perimenopause. By contrast, men with ADHD have fewer hormonal issues because male estrogen levels are constant until about age 70. Although testosterone decreases with age and leads to the same cognitive decline that women experience, this process tends to be far more gradual for men.
October is ADHD Awareness Month. For someone who has lived nearly a full lifetime with undiagnosed adult ADHD, getting a formal diagnosis so late in life might seem a little superfluous. But it’s never a bad idea to start getting needed help. Knowing you have ADHD can make a world of difference not only in how you approach your own deficits, but also in how your doctor learns the best way to care for you.
Have you or someone you know been diagnosed with adult ADHD? What steps did you take to get tested? How has a formal diagnosis improved your life? Let us know in the comments below.