Diagnosing ADHD in People Over 50
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is typically diagnosed in childhood, and although we now know that ADHD can continue throughout life, there still isn’t much research or information available on how the disorder impacts the lives of those over 50 years old. For many people, a diagnosis of ADHD in adulthood comes as a shock, even though they have likely been living with symptoms of inattention, forgetfulness and restlessness for decades.
How ADHD symptoms manifest in those over 50
According to Ari Tuckman, author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD,,symptoms in those over 50 are similar to those experienced by younger children and adults. However, he indicates that those over 50 have more complaints about forgetfulness and other memory problems. They might see this as a byproduct of “growing old” but the difference is that ADHD does not suddenly appear as an adult. Cognitive complaints have probably been present since childhood, but many people with the disorder have found various ways of compensating for it from thjweir earliest days. According to Tuckman, “Their struggles are more noticeable as they age.”
In adulthood, hyperactivity isn’t usually a problem. As people mature, hyperactivity gives way to restlessness and for older adults, Tuckman states, “very few adults over 50 still struggle with that. They may have been hyperactive in their youth, but no longer are so.”
Should you seek a diagnosis when you are over 50?
Diane is 55 years old. She recently told me her grandson was diagnosed with ADHD, as was her daughter. She is pretty sure she has inattentive type ADHD: when her daughter described her symptoms, it reminded Diane of her own youth. But Diane wasn’t sure whether it was worthwhile going to a doctor. “I’ve dealt with it this long on my own,” she said, “Why bother? I can keep doing what I am doing.”
I asked Dr. Tuckman about this. He replied that it is up to the individual. “It really comes down to whether what they are doing is working for them or not. This depends not only on their abilities, but also the demands placed on them, both at home and at work, as well as what their performance expectations are for themselves. So, just as for someone of any age, if the person feels like their performance is suffering unacceptably, then seeking a diagnosis may be helpful.”
Tuckman explained that a diagnosis, however, can be a double-edged sword. For some people, a diagnosis gives them a sense of relief. “It can feel better to just understand why they had the struggles that they have had over the years," he noted. "It wasn’t a character defect, but rather a neurologically based information processing weakness.”
On the other hand, some people experience anger, frustration or disappointment after a diagnosis of ADHD, because (they believe) they have suffered needlessly and their difficulties could have been treated and prevented.
When should you seek a diagnosis?
The symptoms that are likely to be a problem in adults over 50 include being distracted, disorganized and forgetful, struggling to complete tasks and having trouble prioritizing. Tuckman suggests talking to your doctor if you feel like you are inordinately struggling in work or with daily tasks. He also says you might talk to your doctor if a family member has recently been diagnosed with ADHD and the symptoms sound similar to what you have been struggling with throughout your life.
Tuckman suggests starting with your family physician to rule out any possible medical causes, but says you should also see a psychologist or psychiatrist because they have more specialized knowledge and enough time to get the diagnosis right.
Potential problems in diagnosing those over 50 with ADHD
When diagnosing children with ADHD, parents and teachers complete questionnaires and offer an objective look at a child’s behavior. In adults, meanwhile, general cognitive function may be impacted by general aging, other medical conditions or current medications. It is important to determine if the current symptoms began before any of these causes. This information is used by the doctor as part of the diagnostic process. For adults over 50, there isn’t always a parent who can help in sorting out which behaviors were present during childhood. In these cases, siblings or partners might be able to help provide information on long-term symptoms.
Psychologists and psychiatrists are trained medical professionals and are able to diagnose ADHD in adults. A diagnosis and subsequent treatment can improve your quality of life whether you are 30, 50 or 80. You are never too old to find out if ADHD is, or has been, holding you back.
Dr. Ari Tuckman, a psychologist in West Chester, Penn.. and author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD, talked with me about diagnosing those over 50 with ADHD and provided information for this article.