Seniors with ADHD: Stats, facts and tips

Sunrise Senior Living  |  July 21, 2017

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a fairly common mental condition that impacts millions of Americans. 

Though many people associate ADHD with energetic young children who struggle to pay attention in class, there are actually many nuances to this condition. As doctors get a better understanding about what ADHD is and how it manifests, they are also learning more about the people who have it, including the fact that adults, even seniors, may be living with this disorder as well.

What is ADHD?
ADHD is a cognitive disorder marked by trouble focusing, hyperactivity and impulsivity, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Once separated into ADHD and ADD (attention deficit disorder), the condition has been reclassified under the ADHD umbrella and categorized into one of the three types:

  1. Inattentive type heavily impacts how well a person is able to focus. People with inattentive type ADHD may have trouble staying organized, noticing details, misplacing things and forgetting tasks they need to complete. They get distracted easily and may leave projects incomplete as a result. 
  2. Hyperactive type is tied to excessive movements. People with hyperactive type ADHD often fidget, talk excessively, struggle to sit still, interrupt other people while they're talking and seem to always be on the go.
  3. Combined type includes an overlap of symptoms between inattentive and hyperactive types, such as a person who is easily distracted and needs to move around a lot.

While the cause of ADHD is not known, medications and therapy treatments can help manage the symptoms of the disease. While 5 percent of children have the condition, many outgrow it as they age, or otherwise learn to control it well enough that it no longer manifests in their daily lives. About 2.5 percent of adults live with ADHD.

Forgetful seniors may be living with ADHD, which may be confused for dementia. Forgetful seniors may be living with ADHD, which may be confused for dementia.

ADHD and seniors
Though millions of adults are living with ADHD, it often goes undiagnosed past school ages. Adults living with undiagnosed ADHD may struggle to stay organized and focused, but don't understand why. It can impact their work and relationships without them realizing the cause. The condition is not often considered as a culprit.

Not as much is known about adult ADHD as childhood ADHD, and that's especially true for seniors. Few studies have examined the impacts and prevalence of the disorder among older population, but since many people do not outgrow the condition, many seniors may be unknowingly struggle with it. 

Adults with ADHD are more likely to retain the inattentive symptoms and lose the hyperactivity, according to Today's Geriatric Medicine. This can cause lifelong problems that cause older adults to compensate for their disorder in ways that can be exhausting for them to keep up with. Seniors may be tested for anxiety and depression as they age, but ADHD is not commonly looked for unless the patient addresses the specific attention issues themselves. 

The presence of ADHD can be especially problematic for older adults, as the condition can mask or be confused with other health issues, The New York Times reports. The forgetfulness of ADHD could lead caregivers and medical providers to suspect early stage Alzheimer's, for example. People who are unable to focus on objects in their environment may be more prone to falling, which can cause a great deal of injury for older adults who have weaker muscles and start to experience bone loss, yet the cause is linked to balance and strength problems instead of ADHD. Anxiety and depression are also commonly blamed for distractions caused by ADHD.

"Most doctors are not thinking of A.D.H.D. as a characteristic of somebody who is 60 or over," Dr. Thomas Brown, associate director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders at the Yale School of Medicine told The New York Times. "They figure it's just cognitive decline from aging."

Treating ADHD for seniors
Despite the fact that seniors have lived their lives with this condition, doctors still recommend treatment for managing symptoms once it's discovered. It's becoming more common for seniors to seek out treatment for ADHD when their children or grandchildren are diagnosed - these cases may be the first an older adult has ever heard about ADHD and realized that they've long lived with the same symptoms. 

"Testing for ADHD relies heavily on patient self-evaluation."

Seniors who think they may have ADHD should talk to their doctors. Testing for ADHD relies heavily on patient self-evaluation as they report the symptoms they experience of the condition. According to the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland, distinguishing ADHD from other cognitive problems seniors often face relies on how long a senior has been living with the symptoms - ADHD will have started much earlier in life and will have been noticeable to the person who has it long before they see the doctor. 

Most seniors reportedly respond well to ADHD medications. However, these drugs are usually stimulants, so they may not be safe for all older adults. These medicines can interact with other prescriptions seniors are taking, complicate cardiac problems or cause an over stimulation that makes older adults more easily agitated. 

Therapy, especially programs that work on cognitive behavioral therapy, can help seniors manage their ADHD as well. This process helps people realize when they are being impacted by their condition, recognizing common thoughts and patterns they fall into when they are struggling with attention and memory. Seniors can then take steps they've planned out with their therapist to stop the effects of their ADHD before they get out of control. 

Doctors can also help seniors develop more manageable coping mechanisms, such as developing better systems for staying organized. By finding ways to lessen the impacts that ADHD has, people living with this condition may function better while they have the disorder.

Exercise has also been proven to help mitigate the effects of ADHD. Seniors should talk to their doctors about a safe workout routine they can do at their age - some seniors may benefit more from low-impact activity. 

Recognizing the problem is the first step - talking to your doctor is the next. If you think that you or an older loved one may be living with ADHD, talk to a physician about diagnosis and treatment options.