Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that can significantly impact an individual’s life. The disorder’s complexity is reflected in the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the exact causes of its development. Experts have hypothesized for years about the potential sources of ADHD; and while they have not yet developed a unified theory of the cause of ADHD, they have identified several potential contributing factors. Learning about these sources of ADHD can help us better understand how it manifests, why it produces certain symptoms, and how it can be treated. To that end, below we’re providing you with an overview of ADHD and its causes.
What Is ADHD?
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that typically develops in childhood and, in many cases, persists into adulthood. It is characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and trouble paying attention for long periods of time. These symptoms can seriously affect an individual’s daily life, including their academic or professional work, personal relationships, and ability to perform care tasks. People living with ADHD often struggle to finish assignments, focus during meetings or lectures, or follow detailed instructions. Early scholastic challenges are often a catalyst for seeking a diagnosis.
Research continues to add to our understanding of ADHD, providing us with information on how it presents, develops, and is treated. Previously known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD, the disorder was renamed ADHD in 1994 when the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published. The disorder was also divided into three different subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, and combined type. The symptoms an individual with ADHD experiences will generally vary based on the subtype they present with.
Symptoms Of ADHD
It is important to remember that symptoms of ADHD can vary from individual to individual and may impact people at different levels. However, some of the most commonly expressed symptoms of the disorder include:
Difficulty Paying Attention
People with ADHD often struggle to focus on tasks, conversations, or other activities for sustained periods.
Being Easily Distracted
When the individual is able to pay attention, they may be more likely to have their focus interrupted by their own thoughts, outside influences, or other stimuli.
An individual with ADHD may interject frequently during conversations, have trouble waiting their turn, and make decisions without considering the possible outcomes.
Difficulty Completing Tasks
An individual with ADHD may frequently abandon projects after starting them.
ADHD is associated with neurotransmitter overactivity which can contribute to overactivity in the areas of the brain that control movement or behavior, leading to hyperactivity in many individuals with the disorder.
Trouble With Organization
ADHD often leads to executive dysfunction, which can make managing the details of one’s day-to-day life difficult. People with ADHD often experience time blindness, which is difficulty organizing and keeping track of time, causing them to struggle sticking to a schedule and making and keeping appointments. The disorder can also make it hard for an individual to organize tasks, their space, and other aspects of their life.
Struggles With Controlling Emotions
ADHD often causes emotional dysregulation, which can lead to unwanted reactions, relationship conflict, and comorbid mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders).
These symptoms can have a serious impact on an individual’s life, but as we’ll discuss later, they are treatable. Many individuals who seek treatment are able to manage the disorder effectively and find success in their personal and professional lives.
The Causes Of ADHD
Experts have studied the development of ADHD for years, producing research that suggests there is likely one main factor, genetics, that combines with less potent influences in some cases. Though studies have that found various genes, environmental contributors, lifestyle factors, and societal effects may all play a role, there is no unified theory of the exact cause of ADHD.
Genetics are thought to be the primary factor in the development of ADHD, with most experts agreeing that numerous genes are involved (as opposed to one genetic variation or a select few genes causing the disorder).
Genetics are thought to be at the root of several of the causes of ADHD, such as variations in brain function and structure. Among the genes that have been identified as potential contributors are DRD4 and DRD5, which are dopamine receptor genes; DAT1, a dopamine transporter; and COMT, which can lower dopamine levels.
As discussed above, brain variations are considered major factors in the development of ADHD. Research suggests that deficits in the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline are principal causes of the disorder. This is why genes that affect the proliferation or function of these chemicals are the focus of much of the research on ADHD’s causes. Dopamine and noradrenaline are partially responsible for a variety of functions, such as our ability to focus, regulate our emotions, and motivate ourselves. Additionally, individuals with ADHD have been shown to have less gray and white matter in certain areas of the brain. And several other structural disparities have been linked to the disorder over the years.
Certain environmental factors have also been identified as potential influences. For example, research shows that individuals who are born prematurely have a higher chance of developing ADHD. Studies have also found links between ADHD and toxin exposure, dietary patterns, smoking during pregnancy, and trauma. The fact that the heritability—a measure explaining the amount of variation in a trait that is due to genetic differences—of the disorder is close to 80% suggests that environmental factors play only a small role in its development.
Because ADHD is complex and presents in many different ways, the research into its causes is complicated. Studies often use different methods and strategies that may only illuminate one aspect of the disorder. However, researchers continue to find connections between individual factors and ADHD symptoms.
Treatment For ADHD
While ADHD is a complex and serious disorder, it is also a treatable one. The exact treatment option will typically depend on the individual’s symptoms, age, and medical history. Three of the most commonly recommended treatment options are:
Stimulant and non-stimulant medications are often prescribed to individuals with ADHD to improve attention and reduce hyperactivity or impulsivity. Medication can be highly effective in managing many ADHD symptoms (studies show that up to 80% of people who utilize stimulants experience improvements in their symptoms), and it is often the first-line treatment. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting or stopping any medication.
Therapy can help individuals with ADHD develop strategies to manage their specific symptoms more effectively in a supportive environment. It can also be a place to discuss other treatment options and gain a more robust understanding of the disorder. Therapy may also allow the individual to address the emotional challenges that ADHD can produce, improve their communication skills when it comes to discussing ADHD, and work through symptoms of comorbid conditions, if applicable.
Healthy sleep habits, exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet can help mitigate ADHD symptoms and benefit the individual’s mental and physical well-being. Studies show, for example, that a diet high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and folate—and low in sugar—can help improve symptoms.
Managing ADHD With Online Therapy
A growing body of research suggests that online therapy can help individuals with ADHD address their symptoms in an effective and convenient manner. In a study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, researchers examined the effects of online therapy for ADHD compared to in-person treatment, concluding that there were no significant differences regarding the flow of sessions, positivity post sessions, participant satisfaction, or therapeutic alliance. The study also notes the increased flexibility provided by online therapy, along with its cost-effectiveness and accessibility.
If you are living with ADHD or similar concerns, consider taking advantage of the flexibility and accessibility of online therapy. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can schedule therapy sessions easily and receive regular reminders, which can be helpful if ADHD causes you to struggle organizing your time. You’ll also be able to contact your therapist outside of sessions; so, if you have a question about an ADHD symptom or want to clarify a point made during therapy, you can send them a message, and they’ll respond when they’re able.
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What are the three causes of ADHD?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that can significantly impact an individual's daily life. It is characterized by symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These symptoms can lead to difficulties in staying focused, managing tasks that require sustained mental effort, and maintaining organization.
ADHD is believed to have multiple factors that contribute to its development. The primary causes include genetic factors, brain structure and function, and environmental influences, such as prenatal exposure to toxins or maternal smoking. No, it’s not just a case of too much sugar.
Are you born with ADHD or is it caused?
Research suggests that genetics are a strong component of what causes ADHD. Even so, the exact causes are multifaceted and include a combination of genetic, neurobiological, social, and environmental factors.
Some risk factors include:
- Brain injury
- Substance use during pregnancy
- Premature delivery and/or low birth weight
- Exposure to toxic materials (e.g., lead) at a young age or during pregnancy
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. Most people show signs of ADHD by age 12, but some children with ADHD exhibit symptoms by the age of 3.
For more information about diagnosis, visit the National Resource Center on ADHD.
Is ADHD an illness or a coping mechanism?
ADHD is a recognized neurodevelopmental disorder, not a coping mechanism. It is characterized by specific symptoms related to inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity and is diagnosed based on criteria established in the DSM-5.
There are three main subtypes of ADHD:
- Predominantly inattentive presentation. This type might present as poor organizational skills, distractibility, forgetfulness, inability to focus that leads to careless mistakes, etc.
- Predominantly impulsive/hyperactive presentation. This type might present as interrupting others, unnecessary risk-taking, and excessive fidgeting and talking.
- Combined presentation.
While individuals with ADHD may develop coping mechanisms for managing symptoms through behavior therapy, the condition itself is not a conscious coping mechanism. ADHD is considered a learning disability under the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which qualifies students for special education programs.
Is ADHD caused by trauma?
ADHD scientists are still working in this area, and research is collectively inconclusive. One study states that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and ADHD are highly comorbid among children and teens with a history of trauma. The two conditions also share some overlapping symptoms (e.g., impulsive behaviors), so it may seem that one causes the other. Current research states that trauma may lead to an increase in ADHD-like symptoms, but it does not necessarily cause ADHD.
Consult a mental healthcare professional to diagnose ADHD or PTSD. For children, this might be a child psychologist.
Is ADHD a form of autism?
While there are some overlapping symptoms between ADHD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), they are separate conditions with distinct diagnostic criteria.
Who gets ADHD the most?
ADHD can affect anyone, regardless of age or background. That said, boys under the age of 17 have the highest diagnostic prevalence of ADHD. Approximately 4% to 12% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, and boys are two to three times more likely to have it than girls.
Does ADHD go away?
ADHD is a lifelong condition; however, its symptoms can change over time. In some cases, the symptoms may become less prominent with age, but they often persist into adulthood. Effective management through behavioral therapy, medication, or a combination of interventions can help individuals with ADHD lead fulfilling lives.
Does ADHD get worse with age?
It is unlikely that ADHD will disappear with age, but the symptoms can change with time, especially if intervention like cognitive behavioral therapy is introduced as part of a long-term treatment plan to develop healthy behaviors. Though symptoms will likely persist into adulthood, they may become less pronounced over time. Hyperactivity may decrease, while difficulties related to organization and time management can become more pronounced in adulthood. Proper diagnosis and treatment can help manage and adapt to these changes.
Does ADHD peak at a certain age?
It is thought that the ages of 7 and 8 are when symptoms of hyperactivity are most severe. Even so, ADHD symptoms do not peak at any specific age across diagnosed individuals. They can vary in intensity throughout a person's life, and their impact may be more prominent during certain developmental stages, such as childhood or adolescence. Early diagnosis and intervention are essential in managing symptoms at any age.
What are people with ADHD good at?
Individuals with ADHD often possess unique strengths, including creativity, innovation, and the ability to think outside the box. They may excel in roles that require rapid problem-solving, high energy, and multitasking. Recognizing and nurturing these strengths can be a valuable aspect of managing ADHD and helping individuals thrive in various areas of life.
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