Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), something kids of the 80s may have come to know as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to pay attention and control impulses.
Often, the symptoms of ADHD present in early childhood or adolescence, where fidgety kids are found to be disruptive in structured environments like school classrooms. According to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 6 million children ages 2-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD in the United States.
Better understanding of the disease has meant better treatment for kids known as “problem children” just a couple decades ago. But for those ADHD sufferers who came of age before the rise in understanding, the “bad kid” label may have earned them incorrect diagnoses of anxiety, bipolar, or personality disorders and may have cost them jobs, relationships, and self esteem.
“A hallmark of ADHD is an individual’s inability to stay on task,” said Joshua Flatow, a psychiatrist treating ADHD at Pacific Mind Health in Los Angeles, Calif. “The trouble is, these patients fully recognize their shortcoming and its effect on those around them yet they are unable to do anything about it. They’re often highly intelligent with the attention span of a toddler, which heightens their internal frustration and sometimes spirals into other issues like anxiety and depression.”
At Pacific Mind Health, Dr. Flatow and his team are uniquely attuned to the entangling of ADHD with other psychiatric conditions. Identifying the true underlying condition, he says, is the first step in getting patients the treatment they really need.
Of those 6 million children who have ADHD diagnoses, about 90% will still be dealing with it as adults. For those who made it to adulthood without a diagnosis, the frustration of not meeting goals and seeing peers attain success with less effort can be crippling, especially since they don’t understand that it’s not their fault. It’s their uniquely wired brain, and they were never given the training needed to wrangle it in a modern society. If only they were a nomad...
The interaction of genes with environmental factors, including cigarette, alcohol and drug exposure during gestation, toxin exposure in youth, and brain injuries, are being explored by researchers across the country to pinpoint the cause of ADHD. One interesting find is that neurotransmitters, which is the brain’s way of communicating, are less active in the parts of the brain in charge of maintaining attention in people with ADHD.
In the meantime, healthcare providers are becoming more adept at diagnosing it through a combination of neuropsychological tests, subjective evaluation that includes childhood history, and brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which may help identify subtypes of ADHD: inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or combined type.
Whatever the type, the treatment modalities are the same. Stimulants like amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall) have been found to help hyperactive ADHD patients concentrate better and resist distraction more easily. Antidepressants such as atomoextine (Strattera) can help stabilize moods and control impulsive behaviors. Counseling is as important as the medications, though, as it targets self esteem and provides behavioral training that enables ADHD patients to get organized, establish routines, and repair relationships.
“Going through life with untreated ADHD could be dangerous,” said Mottsin Thomas, a psychiatrist at Pacific Mind Health in Los Angeles. “Studies show people with untreated ADHD are more likely to have serious car accidents, and the impulsivity of the disease can lead to substance abuse or risky behavior that may lead to incarceration or, in extreme cases, death. Life expectancy for adults with ADHD is 13 years less than the general population, but patients with ADHD shouldn’t despair. There are treatments available, and many people with ADHD are highly successful and lead full lives.”
Just look at Simone Biles, Olympic Gold Medal gymnast who’s doing stunts so dangerous they may be too much for the 2020 Olympics. Or Michael Phelps, undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary swimmers ever to get in a pool. Justin Timberlake and will.i.am actually credit ADHD for making them better musicians. Political Analyst James Carville wasn’t diagnosed until his 50s, when his wife noticed his fidgeting was so relentless she insisted he get evaluated.
These celebrities are just a few of the 4.4% of adults in the United States with ADHD, but they are an example of the potential that comes with harnessing the disease through treatment.
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