Most people are at least passingly familiar with ADHD. Perhaps you know someone with it, or have heard it talked about on TV or radio – or maybe you know that it stands for ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’. Either way, it’s just as true that there are a lot of misconceptions about it.
ADHD is often seen as something that only affects children. But, it’s estimated that globally, around 5% of children and 4.4% of adults are living with the condition. Research also estimates that there are 1.5 million adults living with ADHD in the UK.
Therefore, increased understanding and awareness of ADHD will not only help us to be more accommodating of one another – but it could also make a world of difference for people who’ve gone undiagnosed into later life.
So, here’s a short guide to what ADHD is, the biggest misconceptions people have about it, and what to do if you think you or someone you know might be affected.
What is ADHD?
ADHD, as previously mentioned, stands for ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’. People with ADHD will have cognitive differences when it comes to attention management, working memory, and stimulation – although these differences can manifest in various different ways depending on the person.
Common symptoms of ADHD
As the name suggests, people with ADHD experience symptoms of inattentiveness, and mental/physical hyperactivity. But what do these actually look like?
People with ADHD may frequently struggle to maintain their focus and to pay attention to things, often finding themselves easily distracted and lacking motivation. They may also feel restless, and seek out behaviours and activities that will allow them to shed the excess energy they feel (these are the ‘hyperactive’ symptoms).
At the same time, however, people with ADHD can find themselves hyperfocusing on an activity or task of particular interest to them (often to the extent that they struggle to pay attention to anything else). They may also feel sluggish and tired.
According to the NHS, some of the most common ADHD symptoms in adults also include:
Poor organisational skills
Short attention span
Inattention to detail – leading to frequent mistakes
Continually losing things
Poor time management
Lesser known symptoms of ADHD
Because ADHD is a condition with such a wide range of symptoms, some of them are largely unheard of to most people.
Perhaps the most unfortunate (yet lesser known) symptom is the way that ADHD can affect sleep. Due to the restlessness of the body and mind, people with ADHD can struggle nightly to fall asleep.
On top of the general feeling of low energy and motivation that ADHD can produce, and the fact that good sleep is so important to our general mental and physical health, this symptom can be one of the most difficult to deal with.
Other common symptoms include forgetfulness, emotional dysregulation, and even secondary symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Why is ADHD so misunderstood?
There are a couple of major reasons as to why general understanding and awareness of ADHD is so poor.
Historically, ADHD was considered to be a children’s condition – and it’s only been in the last two or so decades that clinicians have begun to recognise the prevalence of ADHD in the adult population. So, many people are simply unaware that adults can have the disorder, or of how it can affect them.
Even for those who are aware that adults can have ADHD, the name ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ can be misleading.
While children with ADHD are frequently very energetic, the majority of ‘hyperactivity’ in adults is internal (for example racing thoughts, agitation and inner restlessness). Therefore, many people are unaware of what their friends and family with the condition are going through.
5 common misconceptions about ADHD
1. People with ADHD have a ‘deficit’ of attention
A common misconception about people with ADHD is that they have less attention to give.
But in reality, their struggle comes with directing their attention to where they want it to be. People with ADHD often find themselves flipping between spending hours attempting to write a single email, and days near-obsessing over a particular activity or topic.
This ability to pay extremely close and sustained attention to something is called ‘hyperfocus’ – and it’s often directed toward one or more things of interest for an extended period of time.
Many people with ADHD find that they can’t maintain their focus on a task long enough to complete it before the deadline. But then when the deadline is close and adrenaline is high, they then end up hyperfocussing and getting it done in record time.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to ‘switch on’ hyperfocus, as it comes and goes involuntarily. The objects of these intense periods of hyperfocus are called hyperfixations – and they can be fleeting, or can last a lifetime.
While it may sound like a plus to be so dedicated to your favourite hobby or skill, hyperfixations are not always a matter of choice, and can become quite draining for the person experiencing them.
2. ADHD is a ‘superpower’
Due to the phenomenon of hyperfocus, many well-meaning voices in the public eye have described ADHD as a ‘superpower’ – often suggesting that certain famous innovators and historical figures who thought outside the box might fit the bill for the diagnosis.
While the ‘superpower’ idea was meant to fight certain stigma about ADHD, many believe it has also contributed to creating misconceptions.
It’s true to say that people with ADHD can often be very creative, ingenious, and efficient under the right conditions. However, focussing entirely on these moments of brilliance, while ignoring the genuine struggles that come with the condition, can have a harmful effect on people’s expectations of those with ADHD.
3. People with ADHD are lazy
One particular struggle that sounds like the last thing you’d expect of a hyperactivity disorder is a general feeling of sluggishness and fatigue.
In between moments of restlessness, people with ADHD can often feel as if they have little energy to do things. This is partly to do with the fact that the ADHD brain isn’t very energy-efficient. Issues with working memory, organisation, procrastination, and the associated stress and anxiety mean that the brain needs to expend more energy on average to complete tasks.
In some cases, this can lead people to go through their lives being called ‘lazy’ and told that they rarely apply themselves – which can be especially damaging if they aren’t aware of their cognitive differences.
4. You eventually grow out of ADHD
Many people still think that ADHD is a condition found only in children and that they eventually grow out of it. Some others know that adults can have the condition, but view ‘adult ADHD’ as a separate diagnosis. Though, in reality, ADHD is a condition that’s with you for life.
Studies have consistently shown that people with ADHD have fundamental differences in their neurochemistry that affect their behaviour and cognition every day of their lives.
5. “But isn’t everyone like that?”
Some people believe that ADHD is overdiagnosed, or that it isn’t real at all, citing the question “but isn’t everyone like that?” in response to the common symptoms. This can be especially frustrating for those with the condition, as it can feel as though their struggles are being invalidated.
While studies have suggested that there may be an overdiagnosis of ADHD in children and adolescents (which experts suggest is likely because many of the growing pains associated with this transitory period of life present similarly to symptoms of ADHD), it’s far more likely that there is an underdiagnosis in the adult population.
Many of the common symptoms of ADHD can seem like things that everyone experiences from time to time. After all, it’s only natural to feel restless some days and sleepy during others. But the key difference is how the symptoms affect a person’s daily life.
People often point out that the fact that everyone feels sad and unmotivated sometimes doesn’t mean that clinical depression isn’t a real phenomenon – and the same logic applies to ADHD.
The condition differs from general restlessness and inattention because it can consistently make simple daily activities like scheduling, focusing on work, leisure activities, and even getting out of bed very difficult.
ADHD in older adults
ADHD is, unfortunately, far less commonly spotted in over 50s. As the scientific knowledge about ADHD has advanced over the years, many who would now be diagnosed would not have been when they were a child. By now, they may have also developed masking and coping mechanisms that make their symptoms harder to observe.
It’s important to remember that you can’t ‘develop’ ADHD later in life. You either have the condition or you don’t, throughout the entirety of your life. However, there are cases where it can feel as if this has happened – especially in perimenopausal women.
The hormonal changes that women go through during perimenopause can affect already present symptoms of ADHD. Lower estrogen levels can also lower the levels of the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine – both hormones which the ADHD brain already doesn’t get enough of. This means that women with ADHD can experience increased symptoms during this time.
What to do if you think you might have ADHD
If anything written here rings a bell for you, then you may want to consider speaking to a health professional. Setting up an appointment with your GP is a great first step – and if you already know you struggle with inattentiveness, it could be worth booking the appointment right away, rather than putting it off until you know exactly what you want to say.
Since ADHD is most commonly diagnosed in children, older adults can often feel as if there’s no point in finding out when they’ve managed up to this point – but that’s not the case.
It’s often said that just knowing that you have ADHD is one of the most important and effective steps in treating it, and this is true at any age. Even prior to any medicinal or therapeutic treatment, being aware of the different (and sometimes brilliant) ways that your brain works can make it so much easier to start living your life in ways that work for you.
Dr. Edward Hallowell describes ADHD as a ‘good news diagnosis’, because finally understanding how your brain works allows you to make sense of a lot of the challenges you’ve experienced in life, and equips you to deal with them going forward. ADHD is also the single most treatable condition in current psychiatry.
If you’re diagnosed with ADHD, there are a number of treatment options available. The most common are medication and therapy, which work best when combined.
Fortunately, the majority of medications used to treat ADHD are highly effective with little to no side effects, and many will attest to the life-changing effects of these treatments.
If you weren’t previously familiar with ADHD, we hope that this article has helped you to learn more about the condition, whether it will help you to better understand others, or yourself.
And if you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, we hope that you find this article a welcome addition to the still-developing media coverage of ADHD in older adults.
Did you learn anything you didn’t already know about ADHD in this article? Or do you experience any symptoms of ADHD that you wish more people knew about? We’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below.