Busting myths and setting the record straight on adult ADHD, a very real disorder
Are you or someone you love distractable, disorganized, restless, prone to procrastination? These traits may seem like part and parcel of normal life today. But when they interfere with normal functioning in several areas, such as relationships and work, they may signal adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (adult ADHD).
ADHD, considered a trivial or phony condition by some, affects memory, inhibition, concentration and the ability to moderate emotions and problem-solve. Untreated, it can increase the likelihood of academic failure, substance abuse, depression, accidents and more. "People tend to downplay the significance of what is a life-altering mental-health disorder," says Kimberly Williams, Psy. D, a clinical neuropsychologist in Great Neck, NY. Here, the truth about five common misconceptions about adult ADHD.
1. Myth: ADHD isn't a real disorder
What the Science Shows: Because ADHD symptoms seem so common, there's a misconception that ADHD is a made-up diagnosis. In fact, brain-imaging research has revealed physical differences in the brains of people with ADHD, and a recent genetic study published in The Lancet found that children with ADHD are more likely to have small segments of duplicated or missing DNA than other children. The National Institutes of Health, along with the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Medical Association consider ADHD a valid disorder with the potential for severe, lifelong consequences if not treated.
"ADHD is a chronic disorder that has a negative impact on virtually every aspect of daily social, emotional, academic and work functioning," says Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., author of Taking Charge of Adult ADHD (Guilford Press, 2010). “ This is not a trivial thing that an extra cup of coffee can take care of.”
2. Myth: Information overload causes adult ADHD
What the Science Shows: It is a wonder that anyone gets anything done what with the unremitting stream of distractions out there. (Facebook, anyone?) Still, there is no such thing as adult-onset ADHD. According to Barkley, 99 percent of people with ADHD develop it before age 16. About 65 percent of cases are inherited, while 35 percent are believed to result from prenatal exposure to alcohol, tobacco infection, or a brain injury in early life.
A busy lifestyle—or work style—doesn't lead to the condition, either. "Multitasking doesn't cause ADHD," says Williams. "A non-ADHD person may struggle with having too much to do, but the person with ADHD has a significantly harder time concentrating and feels far more pressure than the average person when trying to manage the tasks of daily life."
3. Myth: Children with ADHD outgrow the problem by adulthood
What the Science Shows: ADHD is most often diagnosed in children, but persists into adulthood for two-thirds of them. As awareness of the condition's longevity has grown, more adults with the disorder are now being recognized and diagnosed. Adults often learn they have ADHD for the first time after their child has been diagnosed, or when they've sought help for another mental-health problem, such as anxiety or depression. Although ADHD always begins in childhood, says David W. Goodman, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, symptoms don’t always become obvious until people mature and have to face a new set of challenges.
4. Myth: People with ADHD don't need treatment—they just need to get organized
What the Science Shows: While some people with mild ADHD can manage without medications, some 80 to 90 percent of sufferers can benefit from them. Dr. Goodman uses the analogy of blurred vision: "If you wear glasses, you will make your life much easier. Likewise, medication can make life a lot easier if you're struggling with ADHD." Behavioral and lifestyle modifications are important too, with or without medication. Support groups, self-help books, individual counseling or a coach trained to help clients master the challenges of ADHD can help people learn how to better plan, organize and manage their lives and relationships.
5. Myth: ADHD Medications are dangerous and addictive
What the Science Shows: Every medication has the potential for side effects, including those for ADHD. Stimulant medications, including methylphenidate (Concerta, Focalin XR) and amphetamines (Vyvanse, Adderall XR) are the most frequently prescribed drugs for adult ADHD. These medications, believed to affect the activity of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, have, at the right doses, a paradoxically calming and focusing effect on people with ADHD.
When these stimulants are taken in higher doses or in other forms (such as crushed and snorted) than prescribed, the risk for abuse rises. The newer time-released formulations (such as Vyvanse, Concerta, or Focalin XR), says Dr. Goodman, are less likely to be abused because of the way your body processes them.
Overall, research has found stimulant medications to be effective and safe. "Over 80 percent of people with ADHD will respond to the first or second stimulant they try," says Goodman. "In psychiatry, that's an extraordinarily high response rate."
From our sister publication, REMEDY’s Healthy Living (Summer 2012)