• Robb G. Best

Putting the Focus on ADHD

Could you have ADHD?

If you’re not, say, a hyperactive schoolboy, it’s possible that nobody has ever suggested this to you. However, between four to five percent of the U.S. adult population has the condition—roughly one in twenty. And that means there’s about an 100% chance that ADHD affects your life in some way, whether it’s present in a best friend, a coworker, a boss, or yes, you.

How could it go undetected in your life for so long? Because it’s probably not quite what you think it is.

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It’s a term used to describe brain differences which affect one’s ability to focus, self-regulate, and/or sit still. That “and/or” is key, because ADHD can look extremely different in different people. For instance, not all people with ADHD exhibit that stereotypical hyperactivity.

In addition to hyper behaviors (like constant fidgeting) or impulsivity (like interrupting others), ADHD can also include a cluster of symptoms related to inattentiveness. This often takes the form of daydreaming or forgetfulness—a sort of internal restlessness—and is generally more common in girls and women. Because it is less visible, it can be far harder to detect, and thus diagnose.

Not only is it a myth that all people with ADHD can’t sit still, but that inability to regulate focus can sometimes manifest in the opposite direction, with a hyper-focus. A person with ADHD may be able to concentrate for hours on the minutia of a beloved hobby, and then struggle to fill out a simple one-page form. Loops of procrastination and then frenzied last-minute concentration are common.

While some continue to debate the precise combination of environmental factors contributing to ADHD (implicating everything from food additives to pesticides to TV), one thing is certain: there’s a strong genetic component. A person with ADHD is four times more likely to have another relative with the condition. A person with ADHD is also more likely to have an additional mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety.

In a recent study conducted by the ENIGMA Consortium, which sounds like a supervillain teamup but is instead an international cadre of scientists searching for the genetic roots of mental illnesses, researchers examined the brain scans of over 3200 volunteers. Approximately half were diagnosed with ADHD; the others were not.

Among those with ADHD, researchers found reduced mass in seven key brain areas, including the hippocampus and the amygdala. Reduced amygdala power may explain a number of common ADHD issues, including memory issues and difficulty regulating emotions. The hippocampus also helps with short- and long-term memory, further explaining how somebody might say, constantly forget their purse or house keys or locker combination. Interestingly, this one-two punch of a smaller amygdala and hippocampus is also common in depressed people—and ADHD is linked with greater likelihood of depression.

Also interesting: the ENIGMA study found the differences to be the most pronounced among children. It’s already known that about 60% of children seem to outgrow their ADHD entirely, and the age-related intensity could suggest that ADHD is in fact, a sort of arrested development.

If you struggle with some combination of directions, organization, boredom, self-control, and concentration, you may want to look into adult ADHD. You can take a short survey here to evaluate your symptoms—and if you find yourself struggling to stay focused long enough to even get a result, it’s probably time to call a psychiatrist.

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