Condition Center: ADHD
This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.
We all know the stereotype of a person with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a child or young adult, typically a man, who acts impulsively and can't sit still. But that image doesn't tell the whole story. Women suffer from the disorder, too. And because women's symptoms are often subtler, they're more likely to fly under the medical radar and remain undiagnosed until adulthood — which is a problem, since untreated ADHD can have a serious impact on your life.
What Is ADHD?
Nearly 10 percent of US kids are diagnosed with ADHD between the ages of 2 and 17, making it one of the most common childhood disorders. Doctors now recognize three distinct types: predominantly inattentive, with symptoms like daydreaming, forgetfulness, and distractibility; predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, which is characterized by fidgeting, recklessness, and impulsivity; and a combination of the two. The condition almost always starts in childhood, even if it's not diagnosed until later, says Stephen Hinshaw, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and an ADHD specialist.
There's also a gender gap in diagnosis: boys (who usually have hyperactive-impulsive or mixed ADHD) are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed in childhood than girls (who more often have the inattentive form). That's partially because the inattentive type is "less noticeable to adults," he says. So while boys' symptoms are spotted, evaluated, and treated, girls' might go overlooked, delaying diagnosis. But even though people with inattentive-type ADHD may be able to develop coping strategies without realizing that's what they're doing, not getting a diagnosis can be harmful. Research shows that untreated ADHD can increase the risk of anxiety and depression.
People of color, including Black, Asian, and Latinx people, are also underdiagnosed. Black children specifically are diagnosed at "two-thirds the rate of white children, despite displaying greater ADHD symptomatology," according to a study in Clinical Psychology Review. This gap may be due to implicit biases and racism causing teachers or doctors to attribute the symptoms of children of color to behavioral issues rather than ADHD. Family beliefs about the condition and access to healthcare could also play a role.
Causes of ADHD
There's no single cause of ADHD, but several different factors may be associated with the condition.
- Genetics may predispose people to ADHD. Research shows ADHD runs in families. A number of genetic variants, rather than a single gene, seem to increase the risk.
- Environmental factors, like lead exposure in childhood, may play a role, reports the Mayo Clinic.
- Parents' lifestyle habits. Smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy seems to increase the risk of the child later being diagnosed with ADHD, according to a study in the journal Psychiatry Research.
- Premature and low-birth-weight babies appear to be more likely to develop the disorder, too, a 2018 review of 12 studies found.
Most Effective ADHD Treatments
There's no blood test, physical exam, or brain scan that can pinpoint ADHD, so doctors typically diagnose it by assessing your symptoms with an ADHD rating scale and psychological tests. Treatment is individual and often involves one or a combination of the following: medications (typically stimulant medications like Adderall, but sometimes antidepressants or atomoxetine, a cognition-enhancing medication); cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches you skills for behavioral management and helps you recognize and shift negative thought patterns; and lifestyle habits. Dr. Hinshaw, for instance, recommends that people with ADHD aim to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day and avoid sugar and refined carbs. "Healthy lifestyle habits can't cure ADHD," he notes, "but they support brain health — and over the long term, they can help."