ADHD throughout the lifespan
Children with ADHD often experience delays in independent functioning and may behave younger than their peers. Many children affected by ADHD can also have mild delays in language, motor skills or social development that are not part of ADHD but often co-occur. They tend to have low frustration tolerance, difficulty controlling their emotions and often experience mood swings.
Children with ADHD are at risk for potentially serious problems in adolescence and adulthood: academic failure or delays, driving problems, difficulties with peers and social situations, risky sexual behavior, and substance abuse. There may be more severe negative behaviors with co-existing conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Adolescent girls with ADHD are also more prone to eating disorders than boys. As noted above, ADHD persists from childhood to adolescence in the vast majority of cases (50–80 percent), although the hyperactivity may lessen over time.
Teens with ADHD present a special challenge. During these years, academic and life demands increase. At the same time, these kids face typical adolescent issues such as emerging sexuality, establishing independence, dealing with peer pressure and the challenges of driving.
More than 75 percent of children with ADHD continue to experience significant symptoms in adulthood. In early adulthood, ADHD may be associated with depression, mood or conduct disorders and substance abuse. Adults with ADHD often cope with difficulties at work and in their personal and family lives related to ADHD symptoms. Many have inconsistent performance at work or in their careers; have difficulties with day-to-day responsibilities; experience relationship problems; and may have chronic feelings of frustration, guilt or blame.
Individuals with ADHD may also have difficulties with maintaining attention, executive function and working memory. Recently, deficits in executive function have emerged as key factors affecting academic and career success. Executive function is the brain’s ability to prioritize and manage thoughts and actions. This ability permits individuals to consider the long-term consequences of their actions and guide their behavior across time more effectively. Individuals who have issues with executive functioning may have difficulties completing tasks or may forget important things.
More than two-thirds of children with ADHD have at least one other co-existing condition. Any disorder can co-exist with ADHD, but certain disorders seem to occur more often. These disorders include oppositional defiant and conduct disorders, anxiety, depression, tic disorders or Tourette syndrome, substance abuse, sleep disorders and learning disabilities. When co-existing conditions are present, academic and behavioral problems, as well as emotional issues, may be more complex.
These co-occurring disorders can continue throughout a person’s life. A thorough diagnosis and treatment plan that takes into account all of the symptoms present is essential.
Despite multiple studies, researchers have yet to determine the exact causes of ADHD. However, scientists have discovered a strong genetic link since ADHD can run in families. More than 20 genetic studies have shown evidence that ADHD is strongly inherited. Yet ADHD is a complex disorder, which is the result of multiple interacting genes.
Other factors in the environment may increase the likelihood of having ADHD:
- exposure to lead or pesticides in early childhood
- premature birth or low birth weight
- brain injury
Scientists continue to study the exact relationship of ADHD to environmental factors, but point out that there is no single cause that explains all cases of ADHD and that many factors may play a part.
Previously, scientists believed that maternal stress and smoking during pregnancy could increase the risk for ADHD, but emerging evidence is starting to question this belief. However, further research is needed to determine if there is a link or not.
The following factors are NOT known causes, but can make ADHD symptoms worse for some children:
- watching too much television
- eating sugar
- family stress (poverty, family conflict)
- traumatic experiences
ADHD symptoms, themselves, may contribute to family conflict. Even though family stress does not cause ADHD, it can change the way the ADHD presents itself and result in additional problems such as antisocial behavior.
Problems in parenting or parenting styles may make ADHD better or worse, but these do not cause the disorder. ADHD is clearly a brain-based disorder. Currently research is underway to better define the areas and pathways that are involved.