You’re Not Too Old for an ADHD Diagnosis

The change for Emma Tregoning was stunning.

“It’s like someone tuned in the radio,” she says.

Tregoning had just received an ADHD diagnosis for the first time—in her late forties. Her son had recently gone through the evaluation process, and, like many parents, she saw herself in the description of ADHD the doctor offered when discussing her son.

Having an answer to why her life always felt chaotic lifted a weight that Tregoning hadn’t realized she was carrying. And she’s not the only adult in their forties, fifties, or older, with that life-changing feeling.

Finally—a diagnosis

ADHD symptoms most often appear in young childhood and can usually be recognized by the time someone reaches their teen years. When parents are aware of a child’s struggles and able to seek a specialist who can pinpoint why a child exhibits inattention and other common symptoms, a diagnosis is often made before middle school is over. Some teens will be diagnosed as they approach graduation.

Evaluation and diagnosis are not always available, however, or families and medical professionals don’t have ADHD in mind when trying to figure out why a young person is struggling. Parents and other relatives who experience similar challenges often don’t realize that ADHD is involved because those challenges are their “usual situation.” They may also be unaware that ADHD runs in families.

There are many reasons an adult older than forty might seek an evaluation: changes in family and workplace responsibilities, flexible working schedules, and worries about forgetfulness, for example. Depression and anxiety stemming from years of undiagnosed and untreated ADHD can be another reason to search further when treatment for those issues doesn’t seem to be working.

“Being diagnosed later in life is an ‘a-ha’ experience for most people,” says psychologist Peter Jaksa, PhD, author of Life with ADHD. “People now understand behaviors that previously made no sense or were attributed to negative reasons—’I’m lazy, stupid, odd or broken.’ They’re grateful to have an explanation finally.”

What it’s like to have an answer

“I’ve never looked forward to my life in the past, ever, and I’m fifty now,” shares one man with a recent diagnosis of ADHD. “I am a completely different person now.”

“I struggled with ADHD all my life and was finally diagnosed at age sixty-three,” a poster to the popular forum Quora wrote. “It has changed my life. I am calm, patient and organized, (people who know me would not believe this!). I am a changed man. It is a wonderful thing.”

Another contributor wrote, “I wasn’t diagnosed until in my forties. Until then, I was living with unnamed puzzling problems. Now I know what I’m dealing with, I can also better self-manage. Over the years, I’d unwittingly developed coping mechanism. These coping mechanisms have mostly got me this far. So, I guess it makes sense to continue using them—but now in the context of a named puzzled with a codified set of understood symptoms.”

“I was diagnosed in my fifties, and I have never felt better,” a Reddit member confided in an ADHD forum. “I am now as organized as my friends and family. I have started exercising regularly. It is all good, and I only wish I had gone to my doctor sooner. My advice to all of the adults out there who feel the same way I did. Please discuss this with your doctor. This has changed my life in ways that I did not think were possible.”

Robbie McDonald wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until she was in her fifties. The diagnosis explained the difficulties in her career and a feeling of lifelong emotional rawness, she says. It took time to adjust to the information, but it has been something she counts as one of the best things to happen in her life.

“There was definitely a period of grief when I was first diagnosed,” she says. “Of wondering what my life would have been like had I known about this when I was young.”

Why the delay?

Most medical and mental health professionals aren’t considering ADHD when they first evaluate someone in their forties, fifties, or sixties, says CHADD professional expert David Goodman, MD. Often they have had very little training in ADHD during their medical studies and in continuing education. When a patient complains of inattention, forgetfulness, struggling with time management, and other symptoms often seen in adult ADHD, they assume age-related or life-situation related causes first.

“A clinician can’t find what he doesn’t inquire about,” says Dr. Goodman. The patient continues to struggle and may receive treatment that either partial addresses symptoms or misses them entirely.

Frequently, he notes, patients will ask him if it’s even worth it to seek a diagnosis or treatment at their age.

“I tell them ADHD is worth treating at any age,” says Dr. Goodman. “I explain that it’s like living with blurred vision your whole adult life and suddenly you get a prescription for eyeglasses. Imagine how much better you will see.”

“Older people with ADHD who have never been diagnosed may suddenly fear that they’re developing dementia because they are absentminded and forgetful,” says Kathleen Nadeau, PhD. She is an ADHD researcher and author of Understanding Women with AD/HD. “We have stereotypes that people with ADHD are all hyperactive, poor students and don’t get very far in life. Those people certainly exist. But ADHD exists across a huge span of abilities.”

Learning that they have ADHD is a relief for some people because there is effective treatment available at all ages. For women, entering menopause and the hormonal changes associated with it can also make symptoms worse. Working with medical professionals to address both ADHD and menopause can also improve quality of life.

Learn more about adult ADHD:

Join the discussion: What has it been like to receive your ADHD diagnosis?