untreated adhd in adults
Healthy Living

Identifying Untreated ADHD in Adults

May 1 2023

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is commonly thought of as strictly a childhood disorder. It’s one of the most common mental disorders in children and teens. However, two-thirds of those cases continue into adulthood. Let’s explore ADHD in adults, including the associated problems, common treatments and the risks of untreated ADHD in adults.

First off, what is ADHD?

The onset of this neurodevelopmental disorder occurs during the prenatal developmental period. The central nervous system and neurological pathways in the brain are formed during the early stages of brain development. Issues in this area can create a deficit or delay in development and behavior.

With ADHD, this affects the part of the brain that handles the set of mental skills that include time management, focus, organization, working memory and focus. This disorder includes a combination of persistent problems, such as difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.

How common is ADHD in adults?

This is a fairly common condition that affects more than 8 million adults, or up to 5 percent of the U.S. adult population. While it is relatively common, it is frequently undiagnosed and untreated, with less than 20 percent of adults with the condition receiving an appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

What are the signs of adult ADHD?

Adult ADHD symptoms may not be as clear as ADHD symptoms in children. Symptoms can also range from mild to severe.

In adults, hyperactivity may decrease, but struggles with impulsiveness, restlessness and difficulty paying attention may continue. In more severe cases, adults may have trouble focusing or prioritizing. That can lead to missed deadlines or forgotten meetings or social plans. Individuals may be unable to control impulses, whether it’s impatience with long lines or traffic delays, or outbursts of anger.

What are the risks of untreated ADHD in adults?

Lack of a diagnosis – or a misdiagnosis – of ADHD in adults can create a lifetime of emotional turmoil. Untreated ADHD may significantly affect a person’s quality of life. Adult ADHD can lead to unstable relationships, poor work or school performance and low self-esteem. It can also lead to problems with anxiety, depression and substance abuse. 

“Undiagnosed or untreated ADHD in adults can have detrimental effects on psychological well-being and quality of life,” said Karen Cooper, a behavioral health nurse practitioner in our Greenville market. “Some effects for adults include poor work performance, poor time management, procrastination and forgetfulness.”

When ADHD goes undiagnosed, it can lead to low self-esteem from a lifetime’s build-up of poor job and relationship performance. Many adults self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, which is obviously quite dangerous.

“We also see an impact on safety,” Karen says. “There is a higher rate of traffic citations in adults with ADHD. And there is a strong correlation between substance abuse and ADHD. Adults with ADHD are twice as likely to be diagnosed with substance abuse disorder compared to individuals without ADHD.”

However, roughly 20 percent of individuals with ADHD are able to regulate ADHD with exercise.

What is high-functioning ADHD?

High-functioning ADHD is a phrase used to describe people living with ADHD who see little to no major impact on daily life. Individuals who fit this description may have reached great success or found ways to work around ADHD symptoms. However, they may still be affected by ADHD.

Are ADHD issues different for men and women?

ADHD is more common in men. Also, the symptoms and risks manifest a little differently in men than in women.

Men tend to have more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Additionally, men may tend to have more of an issue with anger management. They are also more likely to suffer three or more concussions in their lifetime.

Women tend to have more ADHD issues related to inattentiveness. They may seek treatment because their lives seem out of control, or perhaps their finances, job and home seem to be in chaos. Women also report experiencing more anxiousness, stress and exhaustion.

Does age make ADHD worse?

Age itself doesn’t necessarily make ADHD worse. The way your symptoms show up depends on several factors. The good news is that most adults are able to manage their lives well with therapy and medications. This is all, of course, if they seek diagnosis and treatment.

Why does ADHD go untreated?

ADHD may go undiagnosed until you’re an adult because nobody recognized the disorder when you were a kid. This is especially true if you had a mild case and you were able to get by with your symptoms. Most ADHD diagnoses happen when kids are disruptive or are being screened for learning disabilities. The average age for ADHD diagnosis is 7 years.

It is also important to note that every adult who has ADHD also had symptoms during childhood. Experts used to think that children “grew out” of ADHD. But studies show that more than 60 percent of children with ADHD still have it as adults.

ADHD symptoms in adults may be mistaken for mood disorders, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other conditions with overlapping symptoms. Difficulty sleeping isn’t recognized as an ADHD trait, but 40 percent of adults with the condition say it’s their biggest impairment.

Often, the diagnosis occurs when an adult has a child diagnosed with ADHD, adds a new family member or takes on more job responsibilities that create too much stress to bear.

What are the treatments for ADHD?

There is no single approach that applies to all cases of adult ADHD.

Treatment for adults is similar to treatment for childhood ADHD. Adult ADHD treatment includes using ADHD medications, psychological counseling, or psychotherapy, and treatment for any mental health conditions that occur along with ADHD.

Stimulant medication can improve focus and concentration. For those who don’t respond well to that type of medication, a non-stimulant medication may be recommended. Antidepressants may also be appropriate.

“The nonpharmacologic treatments would primarily be something like cognitive behavioral therapy by a therapist. Coaching has also been found to be very effective,” Karen says.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help teach individuals how to manage their symptoms and develop coping strategies. Other treatment options include support groups, skill-building workshops and executive functioning coaching.

A mental health professional will develop a comprehensive evaluation and ultimately determine the best treatment plan. Treatment at any age can make a huge difference in quality of life.

Learn about the behavioral and mental health services we provide at Bon Secours.

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