Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults

By Bonnie Steele. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Historically, ADD, a subtype of ADHD, has mostly been associated with children and adolescents. Not surprising, considering the fact that it’s one of the most common brain disorders in children. However, more and more adults are now realizing they may have ADD, often after having gone undiagnosed for decades.

In fact, neuropsychiatrist Daniel G. Amen, MD, founder of six brain imaging clinics, says he sees adult patients with a vast range of subtle ADD signals, including:

  • Sleep problems,
  • Marital problems,
  • Substance abuse,
  • Workplace issues,
  • Poor organization and planning,
  • Procrastination,
  • Anxiety and depression,
  • Trouble thinking clearly,
  • Uncontrolled anger, and
  • Failure to listen to directions.

According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, 8 to 9 million adults suffer from ADD. Adults with ADD find that their behavioral issues create lifelong roadblocks and frustration if left untreated.

Identifying Symptoms of Adult ADD

Some adults suspect they may have the condition while checking to see if their child has ADD. In fact, there’s a 25 to 35 percent chance that if one family member is diagnosed, other family members also have ADHD or a subtype

“A majority of adult patients will recognize their own patterns and difficulties when completing questionnaires for their children during evaluations,” says J. Russell Ramsay, PhD, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Suddenly it hits them, and things make sense.

For others, the realization hits in adulthood if they were diagnosed with it as a child. Ramsey sees many people who were identified with ADHD when they were younger and are now seeking help as adults. Many experts now recognize that children and adolescents do not just “grow out of ADHD,” he adds.

Children with ADD and ADHD tend to exhibit common behaviors, such as distractibility, impulsiveness and hyperactivity, but adults with the condition manifest symptoms quite differently. Adults with ADD often aren’t hyperactive. Their issue is often one of either self-regulation, the inability to prevent responding immediately to something, or difficulty focusing, thinking and working toward goals.

Managing Adult ADD

There are several different types of treatment routes adults with ADD may take:


  • Treatment may include stimulants, which are prescription medications such as methylphenidate, amphetamine, dextroamphetamine mixed salts and others.
  • Doctors may suggest a combination of behavioral therapy, coaching or counseling to offer coping skills and calming, adaptive behaviors.
  • Ramsay also suggests taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements. “They have been found to have moderate benefits, and, if nothing else, they have positive effects on mood and cardiac health.”
  • Finally, research suggests that regular exercise on most days of the week helps generate “get happy” dopamine receptors in the brain. “This may set the stage to enhance the positive effects of medication and psychosocial interventions for adult ADD,” says Ramsey.


It’s also important to understand that the subtypes of ADHD have different characteristics. Amen notes that understanding which type you suffer from is the first step to getting help and appropriate medication.


Next Steps

Not all inattention is ADD. But if you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from this undiagnosed condition, Ramsay suggests making an appointment for a comprehensive evaluation, including a thorough developmental history to determine if there was an emergence of symptoms during childhood or adolescence. “We also investigate alternative explanations for these symptoms,” explains Ramsay.

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