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John Stennes / Forum News Service Amy Litzinger, diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, runs a day care in her Grand Forks home.

ADHD affects adults, not just kids: The disorder is marked by a number of unique traits

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GRAND FORKS — As a college student 30 years ago, Amy Litzinger had trouble concentrating.

“It was really hard to stay focused,” she said.

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In class, “I found it was much easier if I kept busy while listening,” by taking notes for other students. “I became a very thorough note-taker.”

She also had trouble staying organized, she said. “I was always forgetting things. I could set things right by the door that I wanted to take with me, and walk right by them” the next day.

Litzinger didn’t know it, but she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, a brain-based medical disorder that probably started, undiagnosed, in childhood and stayed with her into adulthood.

She earned her college degree in social work with honors.

“I did OK, but I wonder what I could have done if I’d not struggled with (ADHD).”

Diagnosed as an adult

Most people are diagnosed with ADHD as children between ages 6 and 7, according to Dr. Derek Carlson, child and adolescent psychiatrist with the Center for Psychiatric Care in Grand Forks.

It is possible to be diagnosed at an older age, but chances are the disease has been present since childhood, he said.

“We didn’t know about (ADHD) when I was growing up,” said Litzinger, 49, of Grand Forks.

She recalled telltale signs that, she knows now, pointed to ADHD. “I had trouble keeping quiet, I liked to talk and to be active, but I was not acting out.” She remembers making impulsive decisions and seeking out adventure. “I think a lot of that was linked to having ADHD.”

The disorder, marked by inattentiveness and excessive talking and fidgeting, is widely known to affect children, but it can manifest itself later in life after a diagnosis-free childhood.

“It’s a common misconception that only children have ADHD, but in reality, many adults suffer with it and go undiagnosed,” Carlson said.

Litzinger was diagnosed in her late 20s, when her 8-year-old son was being tested for — and was ultimately diagnosed with — ADHD. She realized she had most of the symptoms her son had, she said.

She took medications for ADHD for about eight years. “Eventually, I just ended up going off them,” she said. “I didn’t like the idea of taking something. I’m very sensitive to meds.” 

Symptoms

People who have ADHD exhibit forgetfulness, are unable to complete tasks and have an inability to focus. They take unusual risks, have difficulty with organization and punctuality, and make impulsive decisions.

Among adults, the Harvard/National Institute of Mental Health’s National Co-morbidity Survey found that 4.4 percent of adults ages 18 to 44 in the United States experience symptoms and some disability. It’s estimated that 25 to 40 percent of adults with ADHD have a co-existing anxiety disorder.

Many adults with ADHD also have depression, bipolar disorder or another mood disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic website. While mood problems aren’t directly due to ADHD, a repeated pattern of failures and frustrations because of ADHD can worsen depression. 

As many as 70 percent of those with ADHD will be treated for depression at some point in their lives, experts say. Sleep disorders affect people with ADHD two to three times as often as those without it.

What makes this disorder different from others is that the symptoms are excessive, pervasive and continue showing up throughout life.

As adults, people with this condition usually have inattentiveness rather than hyperactivity, said Dr. Bradford Frank, psychiatrist with the Center for Psychiatric Care. 

The disorder has been linked to poor performance in school, trouble with the law, problems at work, alcohol or drug abuse, frequent car or other accidents, unstable relationships, financial stress, and poor physical and mental health.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, or DSM, sets the standard for determining whether a patient has ADHD, Frank said.

“Some kids grow out of it. Some (have) symptoms into adulthood.”

Adults with ADHD who had symptoms but were undiagnosed as children “will say, ‘My parents never took me to a doctor, and now it’s bothering me,’ “ he said.

The disorder can “very negatively affect their education, social interactions, their work. Like many things, if not diagnosed or treated, it can very much disrupt people’s lives.”

But those affected by ADHD can lead productive lives with effective treatment.

ADHD “comes down, to a large degree, to genetics,” Carlson said. “It’s one of the most highly inherited disorders. … It tends to run in families.”

Other suspected causes include exposure to cigarettes and, to a lesser degree, alcohol, as well as lead and pesticides, he said.

Ingestion of excessive amounts of sugar does not cause ADHD, he said, although “if you have ADHD, sugar will not help.”

If you suspect that a loved one has ADHD, “try to be as supportive as possible,” Carlson said. Encourage that person to see a doctor. Take another person with you to the doctor’s office to fill in details about symptoms and keep track of information the doctor provides.    

Affects relationships

Litzinger said ADHD has probably damaged some of her relationships.

“My son will say, ‘Just let me finish what I’m saying before you say anything,’ “ she said.

“It affects my communication. I’m always apologizing; it’s hard for me to stop.”  

It’s also difficult to get going.

“Not too often do I leave the house when I don’t have to come back” because she’s forgotten something, she said. “Other people will say they do that too, but I say, ‘For you, it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon thing; for me it’s an everyday thing.’ “ 

While some people with ADHD “can be loud and obnoxious, I like to think I’m kind of fun,” she said. “Luckily, I got some of the (necessary) social skills; I can rein it in a little bit … I laugh and tease about it all the time.”

She knows that if she goes downstairs to do laundry, “I’ll end up doing 10 things,” she said.

Litzinger has “trouble staying on time and staying on task,” she said. Finishing every step of a project is a challenge, but she’s found ways to adjust. “I really try to compensate,” she said. That may mean staying up all night to get something done.

“That works. It’s just finding the time when I can do that.”

She makes it a point to put things back in the same place — in her purse and in her home. Even so, “I’m walking back in four or five times before I actually leave home … I can’t quite get things together.”

But ADHD can have a positive element, she said. “It makes life exciting — being a little bit adventurous can be fun. It makes me who I am.”

She’d like people to not overreact to others who have ADHD.

“I think sometimes people think, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to be a handful,’ “ she said. “It lends to who that person is. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

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