ADHD Doesn’t Have to Make You Older

Age may be more than a number; it can also be how fast your body ages compared to your peers. And untreated ADHD, especially in the teen years, can play a role in faster aging and possibility a shorter lifespan.

Accelerated aging related to teen physical and mental health

Biological aging refers to how old your body’s cells are, as measured by changes in cell structure and components. Our cells contain the DNA that builds our bodies; our DNA also contains the genes that give us our eye color, our height, and frequently our body shapes. An important piece of the DNA strand is known as a telomere. When we are young, those telomeres are long, but as we age they grow shorter as the cells divide and make new cells. How long or short those telomeres are determines our biological age.

Lifestyle choices can affect the health of our cells and hold off some of the shortening of the telomeres in our cells. Equally, some lifestyle choices and stressors can also cause those telomeres to shorten more quickly.

Researchers in in the United States and New Zealand followed 910 teens into adulthood, making note of health habits, tobacco and alcohol use, and mental health and brain-based conditions that included ADHD. What the researchers found was the teens who did not have well-treated physical and mental health conditions—and they noted ADHD specifically in their data—tended to have faster biological aging when they reached their forties and fifties.

By not having their ADHD treated, or by poorly addressing the symptoms or hoping they would go away, the researcher saw this group of former teens reach older biological ages before their peers did. They aged faster.

“The longer I’ve done this work, and the longer that I’ve worked with older adults in particular, the more I think of psychiatric illness as not a brain disorder, but as a whole-body disorder,” says Brent Forester, MD, chief of the division of geriatric psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, who reviewed the study.

ADHD and growing older more rapidly

ADHD frequently impairs a person’s ability to plan time for exercise or to prepare healthful meals. In many adults with chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and depression, symptoms interfere with their ability to manage their health well. There is a greater use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances among adults who have ADHD. Not managing or poorly managing these conditions contributes to faster biological aging.

There is also the factor of stress in one’s life. Higher amounts of stress cause the body to release hormones that remain at levels high enough to cause damage to one’s body. For teens and adults coping with the symptoms of ADHD, the problems caused by those symptoms at school, in the workplace, and in social situations mean that stress is a constant in their lives. This stress, over time, also contributes to faster aging.

Russell A. Barkley, PhD, is a leading researcher on ADHD. Research he published in 2019 shows that untreated or poorly managed ADHD symptoms are a health risk that can lead to fewer years of life, in addition to greater physical and mental health challenges.

“Our research shows that ADHD is much more than a neurodevelopmental disorder, it’s a significant public health issue,” says Dr. Barkley. “In evaluating the health consequences of ADHD over time, we found that ADHD adversely affects every aspect of quality of life and longevity. This is due to the inherent deficiencies in self-regulation associated with ADHD that lead to poor self-care and impulsive, high-risk behavior. The findings are sobering, but also encouraging, as ADHD is the most treatable mental health disorder in psychiatry.”

How to slow aging and add more years to life

Biological aging can be slowed, and you can add more healthy and active years to your life. Parents can also help their children with ADHD gain more years and have a younger biological age in middle adulthood.

The first step is always to make sure your child’s, or your own, ADHD is properly addressed and treated, preferably by using multiple interventions and lifestyle supports. Parents can also model and teach healthy lifestyle choices to their children and seek out help from professionals to support a healthier lifestyle.

If a teen has ADHD or another brain-based condition, such as anxiety or depression, parents can work with their teen and a specialist to make sure the right tools to address mental health are available and used to the best of the teen’s ability. Physical health conditions and any substance use can be addressed and, if needed, professional support can be found to help teens learn to manage those conditions as they move into adulthood.

The researchers noted in their study that by addressing teen tobacco and alcohol use, treating ADHD and other brain-based conditions, and supporting a healthy diet and exercise, parents can help their children reduce the risk of faster aging. By doing the same for themselves, adults can also slow the effects of aging, no matter how old they currently are.

“The hope is if we were to study a cohort now, a much higher proportion of those children and adolescents are actually going to be treated for these things, which will reduce the risk of accelerated aging later in life,” says the study’s first author, Kyle Bourassa, PhD, a clinical psychology researcher and advanced research fellow at the Durham VA Health Care System. “Those kinds of investments younger in the lifespan could net big benefits in terms of both health and the cost of health care later on as well. If we can treat these conditions, slow people’s aging, then that’s going to have health benefits across the lifespan and basically through their entire body.”

Read more about managing ADHD and living longer:

Join the discussion: How has addressing ADHD symptoms improved your health or your child’s health?