Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a brain development condition that starts in childhood and continues after you become an adult. This condition causes trouble with maintaining attention, hyperactivity and impulse control difficulties. With treatment, people can usually live fulfilling lives with few or no effects from it.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a condition that affects the development of your brain. It starts in childhood. While people commonly outgrow this condition, many don’t.
In children, ADHD can affect things like school performance and social skills. It can have very similar effects in adults, affecting things like work performance, friendships, relationships and mental health.
People with ADHD are “neurodivergent.” This term means your brain developed differently. When those differences are big enough, they can cause conditions like ADHD. People who don’t have those brain differences are “neurotypical,” meaning their brains developed in a typical way.
People with ADHD tend to have lower-than-expected activity in certain brain areas. The affected areas regulate communication between other brain areas, giving you a set of abilities known as “executive functions.” These include your ability to plan, reason, make decisions and steer and focus your attention. ADHD disrupts these abilities, a symptom known as “executive dysfunction.”
Adult ADHD symptoms look very similar to childhood symptoms. However, they may look slightly different because adult life involves different activities. For example, you may experience job-related symptoms or effects instead of school-related symptoms or effects.
There are three subtypes of ADHD, and the symptoms can vary depending on your subtype. Your symptoms determine if you have the inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity or combined subtype. Your healthcare provider will also determine the severity of your ADHD. The severity levels are:
Inattention symptoms can negatively impact your social relationships, work and schoolwork. To have the inattention subtype of ADHD, you must have at least six of the following, lasting over six months:
Hyperactivity and impulsivity are very common with ADHD. Impulsivity can cause problems with social skills and interactions. To have the hyperactivity/impulsivity subtype of ADHD, you must have at least six of the following, lasting over six months:
This subtype of ADHD is when a person has at least six of the hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms and at least six of the inattention symptoms.
Experts don’t fully understand why or how ADHD happens. There’s evidence that it may involve differences in your brain structure, brain chemistry or both. But experts do know it can be genetic. That means you can inherit ADHD from one or both parents. However, some people also develop it spontaneously without a family history.
Having ADHD means you’re likely to have subtle — but important — differences in your brain structure. A key part of how your brain works is how it forms connections between its different areas. People with ADHD seem to have fewer connections in certain areas, or those areas may be slightly smaller or less dense than they are in people without ADHD. The affected areas are key in managing executive functions.
Your brain relies on networks of specialized cells known as neurons, which send and relay signals throughout your brain. Those signals are how you form thoughts, move your muscles and more. Your brain needs special chemicals known as neurotransmitters to transfer signals from neuron to neuron.
Research indicates ADHD might cause an imbalance or shortage of certain neurotransmitters, especially dopamine and norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline in certain parts of the world). Without the right amount or mix of neurotransmitters, your brain can’t function as it should.
A healthcare provider, usually a psychologist or psychiatrist, can diagnose ADHD based on your medical history and current symptoms. As part of diagnosing ADHD, your provider will ask you about your current symptoms and symptoms you had when you were a child. This usually involves a questionnaire designed specifically for diagnosing ADHD. Currently, there aren’t any lab or medical tests that can help diagnose ADHD.
There’s no cure for ADHD, but it’s very treatable.
Medication is the most common and effective way to treat ADHD, and multiple types of medications can treat it. A few examples of those types include stimulants, non-stimulants and antidepressants.
You may need to try different medications and dosages to find one that works for you. Your healthcare provider can also tell you about the possible complications and side effects of these medications.
Many adults with ADHD benefit from treatments like psychotherapy (the technical term for mental health therapy). They may also use adaptation strategies, such as setting consistent routines, keeping a planner or notebook and using smartphone apps. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about therapy methods and lifestyle adjustments that might help.
It’s common for adults with ADHD to have other health conditions, especially certain mental health or brain development-related conditions. Examples of these include:
Accommodations are tools or changes in your work environment that help you manage a condition. These are like step stools for someone who’s shorter than average; a step stool allows a shorter person to reach the same heights as taller people. Likewise, accommodations make it possible for you to achieve and succeed like people without the condition.
In the U.S., under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some individuals with ADHD symptoms that interfere with their work may qualify for reasonable work accommodations. More information about workplace accommodations is available through government agencies.
The main agency responsible is the Department of Labor, including its Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). That office also runs the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which offers free, confidential assistance and guidance to people needing help with job accommodation concerns and questions.
ADHD accommodation examples include:
If you have adult ADHD, the effects that you experience depend on which subtype you have and symptom severity. Medication, therapy and other conventional approaches are usually enough for most people to manage this condition. These treatments allow most people with ADHD to have careers, relationships and families.
People with ADHD have brains that developed differently, and those differences aren’t always negative. Research shows that they can often become advantages or strengths. Some of those include:
Businesses and corporations are also aware of the positive aspects of ADHD. Many corporations seek to hire neurodivergent people (including those with ADHD) for positions where their brain differences are an advantage.
ADHD is a lifelong condition. It doesn’t go away and there’s no way to cure it. However, research shows that the severity of the symptoms tends to decrease in older adults, especially after age 60.
ADHD isn’t a dangerous condition on its own. If adult ADHD goes untreated — especially when it’s more severe — it can negatively affect your life in several ways. These include a higher risk for:
If you have ADHD, your healthcare provider can prescribe medication and recommend treatments and adjustments you can make in your life that can help with this condition. Some of the best things you can do include:
You should see your healthcare provider as recommended, especially if you take medication or receive any other type of treatment. If you take stimulant medications, state or national laws may require you to see your provider regularly so they can continue to prescribe your medication. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about this and recommend a schedule for these visits.
ADHD can affect anyone, but people assigned male at birth (AMAB) are more likely to receive this diagnosis. However, there’s evidence that ADHD in people assigned female at birth (AFAB) is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. There’s also disagreement on whether the condition affects people differently based on race or ethnicity. More research is necessary to determine if these factors can cause differences in the way the condition affects people.
ADHD in adults is relatively common. Experts estimate it affects between 2.5% and 6.76% of adults worldwide. That means this condition affects between 139 million and 360 million people worldwide.
Experts estimate that 15% to 20% of adults diagnosed as children still fully meet the criteria for it, and another 40% to 60% continue to have at least some of the symptoms.
ADD is an outdated name that refers to the inattention subtype of ADHD. In 1987, the American Psychiatric Association set this condition’s name to what it is today, “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” The most recent text revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5-TR™), breaks the condition down into inattentive, hyperactivity/impulsivity and combined subtypes.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects brain development, causing hyperactivity, impulsive behavior or inattention. This condition starts in childhood, and many children — but not all — grow out of it. ADHD in adults can affect your work performance, social relationships and more.
While this condition can be disruptive, it’s also very treatable. There are many medication options and other ways to treat it. It’s even possible to turn this condition’s effects into advantages that can help you in the workplace and your personal life. If you think you have ADHD, getting diagnosed can help. With treatment, it’s possible to harness the effects and turn them into tools for success.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/15/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.