Understanding ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can cause disruption in the daily lives of those who are affected by it.  ADHD can impact school performance, interpersonal relationships, and employment, as it affects concentration, activity levels, and impulse control.

An estimated 3 – 5 % of individuals in the U.S. are thought to have ADHD. While it develops in childhood, ADHD can continue throughout life. At least 30% of affected children continue to experience symptoms as adults.

The Nature of ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is characterized by three hallmark symptoms:  inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity.  While all children demonstrate some degree of these traits due to their immature development, these behaviors are more frequent and severe with ADHD.  To receive a diagnosis, an individual must exhibit symptoms to a greater degree than their peers for at least six months.

Three ADHD subtypes have been identified:

  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive — difficulty controlling behavior and over-activity, with few attention problems;
  • Predominantly inattentive – difficulty with inattention, with few problems with hyperactivity or impulse control;
  • Combined hyperactiveimpulsive and inattentive – presence of strong symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.  Most children are found to have the combined type of ADHD.

While adult symptoms of ADHD may be similar, they may be expressed differently– for example, restlessness rather than hyperactivity.

Causes of ADHD

As with many other disorders, ADHD is the likely result of a combination of factors.  Researchers have found that levels of certain chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain tend to be lower in individuals with ADHD.  Known or suspected contributing factors include:

  • Genetics. ADHD often runs in families, and scientists are attempting to isolate genes that may contribute to the development of the disorder.
  • Prenatal problems.  Low birth weight and difficulty pregnancies have been linked to ADHD.
  • Environment.  Studies have found potential links between ADHD and alcohol use or smoking during pregnancy and exposure to high levels of lead and such environmental toxins as PCBs or pesticides.
  • Brain injury.  Head injuries, particularly to the frontal lobe, seem to increase the risk for ADHD.
  • Nutrition.  Much speculation has focused on the possible effects of refined sugar and food additives, but research is inconclusive.

Treatment of ADHD

While there is no known cure, ADHD is a manageable disorder that responds to proper treatment.  Treatments focus on symptom reduction and management.

Medication is the primary treatment mode. Stimulant drugs are often used with children because, unlike with adults, they actually have a calming effect.  A few non-stimulant medications have demonstrated benefits. While parents are understandably cautious about medication, the proper regimen can help a child learn to focus and behave more appropriately.

In addition, treatment may include psychotherapy, education, or specialized training.  For example, behavioral therapy can assist a child in controlling his or her symptoms.  Structured routines can be developed that will assist parents and teachers in managing behaviors.  Social skills training can provide children with tools to interact more appropriately with others.

The good news for many:  most individuals “outgrow” ADHD as they mature into adulthood.  But strides in treatment give hope to all, regardless of age.