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Eighty Years Old with ADHD? Frequently, Yes.

[DIGEST: The New York Times, The Guardian, Today’s Geriatric Medicine]

We live in a population increasingly concerned about dementia and Alzheimer’s as our loved ones age. Forgetfulness, lack of short-term memory, inability to stay focused – any of these symptoms may lead doctors and family members to fear the worst. But for many seniors, these symptoms may have another cause, and one that is readily treatable: ADHD.  

The High Incidence of ADHD in the Elderly   

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially recognized Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a medical condition. The APA had previously identified it as hyperkinetic impulse disorder. But in 1980, scientists argued that hyperactivity was not a common symptom of the disorder, and reclassified it as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Since then, it–and its modern incarnation as ADHD–has become the most common childhood psychiatric condition, affecting between 3 and 7 percent of children.

While generally thought that ADHD symptoms decreased with age, the incidence of ADHD in the elderly was not studied until a few years ago, with the first epidemiological study of ADHD in the elderly released in 2012 by Dutch researchers in the British Journal of Psychology. In this study, researchers found that the rate of ADHD in the elderly was roughly comparable to that in children – approximately 2.8 percent syndromatic and 4.4 percent symptomatic in the elderly. A slightly more recent study found the number to be slightly lower, at 2.2 percent.

via Flickr user Ethan Prater
via Flickr user Ethan Prater

The Under-Diagnosis Problem

Because the APA has only fairly recently recognized ADHD as a condition, many older adults who potentially have the disorder were never diagnosed. In an interview with Today’s Geriatric Medicine, Dr. Martin Wetzel, an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Nebraska, explained that “healthcare providers aren’t looking for it as much in older populations.”  

Children and seniors with ADHD often do not present in the same way, which can also make diagnosis more difficult. Typically, symptoms of hyperactivity fade as individuals with ADHD age, leaving inattention as the predominant symptom. A 2014 study noted that ADHD in the

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