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ADHD Can Carry into Adulthood, and Could Lead to Depression and Anxiety

Learn why attention deficit hyperactivity disorder starts in childhood, but some people don’t outgrow it.

By Avery Hurt
May 10, 2024 3:00 PM
woman with adhd
(Credit: Billion Photos/Shutterstock)


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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, is usually diagnosed during the early school years. (In order to be diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms must have begun before the age of 12.) But ADHD doesn’t always go away when you open your first 401(k). For many people, symptoms continue throughout life.

Though researchers have long known that ADHD is a lifespan disorder, for many years, it was thought that about half of those diagnosed with ADHD grow out of it by the end of childhood. But finer-grained research has shown that about 90 percent of people with ADHD still have the condition as adults, explains Margaret Sibley, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The reason the extent of ADHD in adults was missed for so long is that the symptoms, like those of allergies, asthma, or autoimmune diseases, can wax and wane, being more prominent at some periods of life than in others. Research that looked only at a given slice of time missed a lot of cases.

“This is important for people to know,” says Sibley, “to dispel the myth that ADHD is something that you can get rid of, and it’s gone for good.”

ADHD for Adults

Living with ADHD is just as challenging for adults as for kids, but it’s different. The hyperactivity that can have kids whizzing around the classroom or refusing to wait their turn in games and queues often shows up as restlessness and fidgetiness in adults.

Adults with ADHD might have trouble completing tasks, get distracted easily, or not pay attention to important details. They’re often disorganized, poor at time management, and prone to procrastination. Some adults with ADHD can hyperfocus on something interesting and completely ignore other important things.

And the condition is not just inconvenient and annoying. Adults with ADHD have a higher risk of unemployment, are less likely to finish college or other educational programs, and have higher rates of motor vehicle accidents and substance abuse.

Read More: Unpacking The Stigma Around Adult ADHD

Other Causes of Attention Problems

Sound like you? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean you have ADHD. “It's important to understand that not all attentional problems are ADHD,” says Sibley.

People who notice they have attention problems shouldn’t assume it’s ADHD and self-diagnosis. There are other conditions that can cause attention problems that can look like ADHD, and some can appear for the first time in adulthood, such as depression and anxiety.

Psychological trauma also can cause problems with attention and executive function. And it’s not just psychological disorders. Some medical conditions, such as thyroid disease and some autoimmune illnesses, can cause cognitive issues. In any case, a proper diagnosis is very important, Sibley says, because these other attention problems may call for different forms of treatment. 

Read More: Is ADHD Really on the Rise?

Seeking Help

So, how do you know when to seek help? ADHD is a personality trait that exists on a continuum, Sibley explains. A lot of people have an above-average level of this trait, but only a small number have such an extreme level that it’s medically necessary for them to get a diagnosis and treatment.

It’s important, she says, not to panic and think, “Oh no, I’ve got a disorder!” if you’re messy or disorganized or if you’re an overactive person who’s always busy.

But if those behaviors are causing you substantial problems or distress in your work, your relationships, or your daily life, you need to get evaluated.

“Many people with ADHD have a hard time holding down a job; a lot of people with ADHD have chronic automobile accidents, and some people with ADHD have trouble maintaining long-term romantic and social relationships,” Sibley says.

And those sorts of problems can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. If all that (or some of that) sounds like you, then yes, it would be a good idea to seek help from a professional who can nail down the right diagnosis and work with you to find the right treatment plan.

Read More: More Adults Than Ever Have Been Seeking ADHD Medications – An ADHD Expert Explains What Could Be Driving The Trend

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Avery Hurt is a freelance science journalist. In addition to writing for Discover, she writes regularly for a variety of outlets, both print and online, including National Geographic, Science News Explores, Medscape, and WebMD. She’s the author of "Bullet With Your Name on It: What You Will Probably Die From and What You Can Do About It," Clerisy Press 2007, as well as several books for young readers. Avery got her start in journalism while attending university, writing for the school newspaper and editing the student non-fiction magazine. Though she writes about all areas of science, she is particularly interested in neuroscience, the science of consciousness, and AI–interests she developed while earning a degree in philosophy.

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