Your health is important. Why do so many men wait to get help when something hurts, or simply skip their annual check-up?
Roberto Olivardia, PhD, says boys and men are taught not to pay attention to their bodies and to power through aches and pains. Add in the executive function challenges of ADHD and far too many men end up with a real, physical problem.
There is good news: ADHD doesn’t have to get in the way of taking charge of your health.
Men’s health and the ADHD effect
In general, men are less likely than women to stay top health issues, says Roberto Olivardia, PhD, a clinical associate at McLean Hospital and lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School. He is a member of CHADD’s professional advisory board.
Most men skip physicals, wait as long as possible to deal with symptoms, and often don’t follow through on taking medications as prescribed. Dr. Olivardia says most boys are not taught physical self-knowledge the way girls are. The skill of tuning in to the body is called “interoceptive awareness,” or mindfulness of what’s happening in the body, whether that’s hunger or a headache. Awareness of how your body feels and functions can affect your overall health. Too often boys are told to “man up” and ignore pain that might signal a serious problem.
People with ADHD often feel invincible, even immortal, says Dr. Olivardia. Impulsivity can lead someone to think, for example, “I shouldn’t eat this candy—it’s really not good for me,” and then eat it anyway. People with untreated ADHD are more likely to get in car accidents that result in injuries. They may drink alcohol to excess and engage in substance use in an effort to self-treat their symptoms.
On a practical level, executive functioning deficits can affect a man’s ability to get to the doctor and follow up on care: to make appointments, rearrange work and personal schedules, arrive on time and on the right day, take medication, and get prescribed refills.
“There’s always that thought, is this worth [the effort] compared to the level of discomfort that I’m feeling?” says Dr. Olivardia. In men who have ADHD, there’s also a common belief that “what I don’t know about can’t kill me” and a misunderstanding of good self-care.
Treat ADHD to improve your health
“Men with ADHD may not recognize that they have symptoms and impairments. If they do, then they try to work hard to compensate for them,” says David Goodman, MD, director of the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland.
“ADHD is more than just not paying attention,” says Dr. Goodman. “The symptoms of ADHD lead to ‘consistent inconsistency,’ and that’s in broad areas of your life—specifically in the area of medical care. If you can’t remember, you can’t follow through, you can’t show up on time. Then things aren’t going to get done, and that includes areas of health and medical care. People who are on medication and in treatment for ADHD are much more likely to set up organizational techniques to ensure they’re taking their medicine on a more consistent basis.”
Dr. Goodman says it’s fairly common among men to believe that if they aren’t taking medicine, they must not be sick. He gives the example of the man whose blood pressure is high. He doesn’t “feel” the high blood pressure and doesn’t take medicine for it, so he concludes that it must not be a problem.
“You have to change the perspective from taking medicine because you’re sick to ‘I take this medicine because the quality of my life taking it is better than the quality of my life not taking it,’” Dr. Goodman says.
Treating ADHD is an important first step. Recent research by Russell Barkley, PhD, and Mariellen Fischer, PhD, found that people with untreated ADHD might not live as long—as much as 13 fewer years—as people whose ADHD is diagnosed and treated. That, Dr. Barkley explains, is a result of a combination of high-risk behaviors common to people with ADHD and poor self-care. Other studies also indicated that ADHD can affect a person’s health well into adulthood.
“The findings are sobering, but also encouraging, as ADHD is the most treatable mental health disorder in psychiatry,” says Dr. Barkley.
Good habits for good health
You’re ready to step up your health game. Where to start? Begin by assessing your sleep, diet, and exercise routines. Keep in mind that alcohol consumption and other lifestyle choices also affect you every day and over the long run.
If you’re not familiar with current recommendations in any of these areas, read up on them at the CDC’s Healthy Living and CHADD’s Fact Sheets on ADHD. Discuss any questions with your healthcare provider
Your primary care physician needs to know about your ADHD diagnosis, along with any co-occurring conditions—it’s part of your overall health picture. If you are taking medication as part of your treatment plan, the doctor should definitely be aware of that. If you need a prescription to treat another condition, knowing you have ADHD may affect your doctor’s choice of medication. If there’s one option of a medication to take three times a day for ten days and another that’s just one pill for four days, the doctor might choose the second option.
Ask your doctor or his office manager if the practice offers a text or email notification system to alert you when you’re due for an appointment or a refill, Dr. Goodman suggests.
“Primary care prescribers get frustrated with [ADHD] patients because they’re inconsistent with their medical care,” he says. “It gets misinterpreted as not caring to take care of themselves, when, in fact, the person has ADHD and the primary care prescriber doesn’t know how to identify that.”
Dr. Goodman also recommends that his patients take their ADHD medications seven days a week. People tend to focus on how medications improve symptoms for work and school. But if you’re not able to get things done on weekends, such as exercise or appointments, it might be a good idea to discuss daily medication with your provider. For the man with ADHD and diabetes, well-managed ADHD may mean the difference between checking his insulin levels regularly and experiencing diabetic shock.
“I tell my patients: Mind and body are one and the same, so when we’re not taking care of ourselves the ADHD is getting worse,” says Dr. Olivardia. “When ADHD symptoms are high, it often is going to impact health and all of the things that we need to do to stay healthy.”
Dr. Goodman agrees. He often asks men, “If we can facilitate you being the person you would like to be, do you have any objection to engaging in treatment for two months to see if we can produce that?”
“Who’s going to say no to that?” he asks.
Looking for more?
- Ask the NRC Podcast: How Does Treating ADHD Improve Health?
- Organize Your Health: How to Set Up and Maintain Your Medical Records
- Executive Function Affects Your Life and Goals
- Men’s Health from Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Men’s Health Month
Join the discussion: What steps have you taken to improve your physical well-being?