ADHD in Adults: What You Need to Know

You probably know a child who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. About 6 million children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S.—almost 1 in 10—have received an ADHD diagnosis, making it one of the most common childhood disorders.

Symptoms such as daydreaming, squirming and disruptive behavior are easy to recognize in many kids.

For adults, ADHD is not as simple to spot, but it is prevalent and affects daily living. Here’s what you need to know about the condition and how to manage it.

What ADHD Symptoms Look Like in Adults

Most people don’t “grow out of ADHD,” says Nicholas Fogleman, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and director of UNC’s ADHD Program. “Although symptoms may change over the course of your life, ADHD is often a lifelong, persistent and chronic disorder.”

One recent study shows that 90 percent of people diagnosed with ADHD as children continue to show symptoms in adulthood.

“Hyperactive behaviors tend to decrease with age,” he says. “You don’t typically see adults running around the room or climbing over everything. Some adults may fidget or appear restless, but typically they present without all the other childlike behaviors.”

There are different types of ADHD, Dr. Fogleman says: predominantly inattentive and predominantly hyperactive-impulsive. Some people have both types, commonly referred to as combined.

“The inattentive symptoms include things like difficulty paying attention, being forgetful, and not following through on directions or finishing tasks,” he says. “Adults with ADHD may also be easily distracted and have challenges with organization.”

Impulsive symptoms also tend to change from childhood to adulthood. Children often blurt out answers and have trouble waiting turns and interrupting others, while adults may make impulsive decisions or make impulse purchases.

How ADHD Affects Adults

Adults with ADHD may have difficulty holding down a job, living on their own or performing well at work or school. They may have stressful personal relationships, difficulty organizing their finances or challenges with parenting because they are disorganized or forgetful. Some may even be night owls or have trouble sleeping. They may also become frustrated quickly.

“When people with ADHD get upset, they may get upset quickly and be more likely to impulsively act on those negative emotions,” Dr. Fogleman says. “A recent study shows between 25 and 45 percent of people with ADHD have difficulty regulating emotions, especially negative emotions.”

Symptoms, however, differ between individuals.

“Two people can be diagnosed with ADHD and not share a single symptom,” he says. “ADHD can look very different from one person to another. The common thread is that at least some symptoms were present in childhood, symptoms have persisted for quite some time, and they impair daily functioning.”

ADHD Often Occurs with Other Disorders

Children and adults with ADHD often have other disorders, Dr. Fogleman says. These include disruptive behavior disorders, anxiety and mood disorders such as depression.

“Many people with ADHD don’t come in asking about ADHD,” he says. “They may come in for other issues—sadness, anxiety, job underperformance, even substance misuse. Maybe they’re falling behind with work, having financial difficulties or experiencing conflict with friends or family. These experiences can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, which should be addressed. But for some people, ADHD is the underlying issue.”

Diagnosis and Treatment of ADHD in Adults

Although there is no cure for ADHD, symptoms usually can be managed with therapy and medication.

The first step usually is to talk to a primary care doctor, Dr. Fogleman says. If your symptoms sound like ADHD, your doctor might give you a questionnaire to learn more about your challenges. They may even ask someone else who knows you well—a parent, sibling or romantic partner, for example—to complete a questionnaire with observations of your behaviors.

If ADHD is diagnosed, your doctor may refer you to a qualified medical professional for therapy or prescribe medication.

People with ADHD can benefit from therapy to learn strategies that help them control their behavior, such as developing organizational or executive functioning skills, breaking down tasks into smaller steps that are easier to complete, and sticking to a schedule for sleep, work, eating and other daily activities. Often, individual and group therapy are helpful for adults who want to learn coping strategies.

“You learn strategies in therapy, then you practice them on your own and apply them to your daily life,” Dr. Fogleman says.

People with ADHD may also be prescribed stimulant medications.

“Stimulant medications target and jump-start the prefrontal cortex,” the area of the brain involved in attention, emotions and impulse control, Dr. Fogleman says. “More activation in that area tends to lead to improved attention and decreased impulsivity.”

Some people can’t tolerate stimulant medications, but there are other kinds of medications that may help improve ADHD symptoms.

“We know that people with ADHD have many strengths and go on to lead incredibly fulfilling lives,” Dr. Fogleman says. “However, if someone is experiencing challenges in these areas, we have really great tools to help.”

If you are experiencing symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, depression or other mental difficulties, contact your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.