An estimated 3% of older adults have a diagnosis of ADHD, although the number may be higher. Researchers estimate about 5-7% of adults in the United States currently have ADHD. What has been of note to researchers and treatment professionals, though, is the steady increase in adults near and into retirement age who are receiving a new diagnosis of ADHD.
“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 has researched and written on ADHD for many years, including the popular book Understanding Women with AD/HD.
For many older adults, the symptoms they experienced were either attributed to another condition, such as depression, or were mild enough that the scaffolding of the daily routines of work and home help to manage them. Once those scaffolds are removed, either through life changes or retirement, symptoms become unmanageable.
“ADHD doesn’t suddenly emerge when you’re 75 years old,” Dr. Nadeau says. The disorder was always there and not recognized as ADHD by the individual and the people around her, she explains.
Senior adults have ADHD, too
The idea that ADHD is only a disorder of childhood persists. Yet, many senior adults are asking if the symptoms affecting their grandchildren, their own adult children, or nieces and nephews could be the same symptoms they have experienced during their lives.
Some older adults who were diagnosed in childhood or as young adults are either returning to treatment or have maintained treatment plans. A recurring frustration, though, is the lack of professionals who can recognize and treat ADHD in senior adults or who will even acknowledge the persistence of ADHD into adulthood. This is gradually changing, as more research into senior adult ADHD takes place.
“Small observational studies have characterized the presence, impact, and treatment of ADHD in adults over the age of 50 years, and larger epidemiologic studies have demonstrated that ADHD symptoms exist in older adulthood,” write David Goodman, MD, Craig Surman, MD, and their colleagues in one of these studies.
For some people, the concern about age-related memory loss or early-stage dementia can either prompt them to seek an evaluation that identifies ADHD or cause them to avoid seeking help because they are afraid of the answers. This avoidance is unfortunate, because identifying and treating ADHD at whatever stage of life a person is currently in improves overall quality of life.
“If you suspect your symptoms may be the result of ADHD, especially if a close family member has received this diagnosis, do not hesitate to ask your primary care physician for a referral to a specialist with expertise in the diagnosis and management of ADHD in older adults,” says psychiatrist Stephanie Collier, MD, of the geriatric psychiatry outpatient services department at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.
Effective treatment is available
An assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine near Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Goodman’s practice focuses on adult with ADHD.
Treating ADHD in older adults is very much like treating the disorder in adults in their twenties, thirties, and forties. A combination of lifestyle and behavior management, therapy, and medication management is recommended. This can include stimulant medications, even for adults older in their sixties and older, unless an established health concern precludes their use. Nonstimulant medications can also be effective.
“Older people tend to respond equally well to these medications,” says Dr. Goodman. “Dosing is thoughtfully slow while monitoring improving cognitive symptoms, side effects, and blood pressure,” he adds.
Learn more about ADHD in adults:
- Diagnosis of ADHD in Adults
- It’s Not A “Senior Moment”—It’s ADHD
- ADHD in Older Adults
- Clinical Presentation, Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Older Adults: A Review of the Evidence and its Implications for Clinical Care
- ADHD in Adults Over Age Fifty
- Where Can Adults with ADHD Find the Best Treatment?