ADHD in Seniors?

By Deb Gerow

When you were growing up, do you remember children being tested and diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? We certainly knew other children who were “busy,” but in my neighbourhood, we had never heard of ADHD, how times have changed. Today, approximately six per cent of children in Canada are diagnosed as having ADHD. There is some discussion as to the cause of this problem. Some would suggest that it is caused by environmental factors. Others say it is because there is more awareness of ADHD, more children being tested for it, and more identified as being affected by it. One fact about ADHD which is not in question is that it often runs in families. That may explain why more than four per cent of adults also have this diagnosis, and the numbers are growing. If these adults have ADHD, they very possibly inherited it from a parent. And so, we arrive at their parents, seniors. Undiagnosed ADHD may have a real negative impact on the quality of life for some seniors.

Many older adults struggle with some aspects of attention, memory, and planning. They may have difficulty following conversations and find themselves interrupting others. Their memory is not consistently failing but cannot be counted on to be reliable. They can be easily thrown off course in the middle of a task. Things are misplaced, and words or names are forgotten, at least temporarily. They may have difficulty with time management and establishing a daily routine and sticking with it. They may also fidget, feel restless, or experience random thoughts passing through their mind.

There are strategies that may help with some of these issues. Regular exercise helps to soothe and calm the body. Sufficient sleep helps to maintain focus. Time management skills can be improved by maintaining a routine, prioritizing important tasks, and setting deadlines for these jobs. Spending time with family and friends — really listening to what they say — helps maintain healthy, supportive relationships.

In some cases though, these minor problems can become extreme enough to interfere with daily living. If using these coping strategies doesn’t really provide relief, many seniors visit their doctor to ask for testing for dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). But perhaps these are not the real culprits. It may be ADHD that is really causing them difficulty.

Dr. Kathleen Nadeau, an American psychologist, has been studying ADHD in older adults. She has noted that it is difficult to diagnose ADHD in seniors. There is no specific screening tool, and most medical professionals have received no training about seniors with ADHD. Dementia, MCI, and ADHD all seem to be inheritable and may present in similar ways. Doctors can look at the medical history of our parents to find evidence of dementia or MCI. When considering the possibility of ADHD, it may be more appropriate to ask if ADHD is present in our children or grandchildren.

Nadeau states that a diagnostic screening tool to identify ADHD must be developed for seniors. There needs to be more research into the differences between ADHD and cognitive decline so that whatever is causing problems can be treated effectively. Many medications typically prescribed for ADHD can have serious side effects for seniors with other medical concerns, so other treatments must be found.

Fortunately, it has been recognized that older adults can have ADHD. The research Nadeau recommends is being done to learn how to identify it and how to deal with its adverse effects. The results from these studies will help seniors living with ADHD. Dealing with ADHD is no longer a problem that some of us must grapple with on our own rather, it is becoming something we can successfully manage.