ADHD from Childhood to Adulthood

Although ADHD was conceived as a childhood disorder, we now know that many cases persist into adulthood. My colleagues and I charted the progression of ADHD through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in our “Primer” about ADHD,  Although the lifetime course of ADHD varies among adults with the disorder, there are many consistent themes, which we described in the accompanying infographic.  Most cases of ADHD startin uterobefore the child is born. As a fetus, the future ADHD person carries versions of genes that increase the risk for the disorder. At the same time, they are exposed to toxic environments. These genetic and environmental risks change the developing brain, setting the foundation for the future emergence of ADHD.

In preschool, early signs of ADHD are seen in emotional lability, hyperactivity, disinhibited behavior, and speech, language, and coordination problems. The full-blown ADHD syndrome typically occurs in early childhood, but can be delayed until adolescence.  In some cases, the future ADHD person is temporarily protected from the emergence of ADHD due to factors such as high intelligence or especially supportive family and/or school environments. But as the challenges of life increase, this social, emotional, and intellectual scaffolding is no longer sufficient to control the emergence of disabling ADHD symptoms. Throughout childhood and adolescence, the emergence and persistence of the disorder are regulated by additional environmental risk factors such as family chaos along with the age-dependent expression of risk genes that exert different effects at different stages of development. During adolescence, most cases of ADHD persist and by the teenage years, many youths with ADHD have onset with a mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder.  Indeed, parents and clinicians need to monitor ADHD youth for early signs of these disorders. Prompt treatment can prevent years of distress and disability. By adulthood, the number of comorbid conditions has increased, including obesity, which likely has effects on future medical outcomes.

The ADHD adult tends to be very inattentive by showing fewer symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. They remain at risk for substance abuse, low self-esteem, occupational failure, and social disability, especially if they are not treated for the disorder.  Fortunately, there are several classes of medications available to treat ADHD that are safe and effective. And the effects of these medications are enhanced by cognitive behavior therapy, as I’ve written about in prior blogs.

Faraone, S.V. et al. (2015) Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder Nat. Rev. Dis.Primers doi:10.1038/nrdp.2015.20 ;