A Rare Look at How ADHD Progresses from Childhood to Adulthood

A study conducted in Finland is demonstrating how ADHD symptoms can persist from childhood into adulthood with negative consequences if left untreated. The study spanned four decades and involved 1,196 individuals who were followed from birth to age 40.  It is a rare look at the progression of ADHD symptoms.

One challenge the researchers faced was that when data collection began in the early 1970s, our understanding of mental health conditions was much less advanced, and ADHD as we know it today wasn’t even a diagnosis commonly being made. So the study team used behavior reports, interviews and assessments of attention problems, which they were able use to make reasonably accurate retrospective evaluations of ADHD. Using that data, they divided study participants into three groups:

  • Individuals who would have qualified for an ADHD diagnosis
  • Individuals who had sub-threshold ADHD symptoms not quite meeting the clinical cutoff
  • Individuals without ADHD symptoms

The researchers invited participants back for an ADHD assessment and series of surveys at age 40. Altogether, the study ended with 318 participants who still met the eligibility requirements and agreed to do the followup survey. Of those, 37 had had childhood ADHD and 64 had been children with sub-threshold symptoms.

The researchers had several key findings:

  • 20% of adults with childhood ADHD still exhibited high levels of ADHD symptoms at 40.
  • 25% of adults with childhood ADHD still had executive function challenges at 40.
  • Academic underachievement in childhood led to a permanently lower educational track.
  • Children with ADHD had more issues with drug use at age 40.
  • Individuals with sub-threshold ADHD symptoms did not appear to have negative outcomes in adulthood

While there can be problems with a retrospective diagnosis of ADHD, the patterns discovered by the researches are consistent with  what we know about ADHD today. The study findings underscore the importance of diagnosing and managing both childhood and adult ADHD.

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5 Responses

  1. Jan Polissar
    | Reply

    I am a retired psychiatrist and was not diagnosed with ADD before age 75 when I attended a seminar at an American Psychiatric Association meeting. Suddenly my eyes opened: “My God! This is me !!!” Much more needs to be done to educate grade school teachers and young parents about this illness. It is my understanding that its prevalence is 5-10% in both males and females but females are less likely to be diagnosed. Although there are many self help and parent help books on the market I have not yet found anything that is of great help in better functioning. The techniques always interest me when I read them but then I usually forget to use the idea.
    As best I can tell, in my type of ADD (probably there are several types) there is a defect in short term, but not permanent memory. [It is strange.I never got past the 6th grade in spelling but still can spot misspellings in printed text. Thank goodness for Spell-Check.] Yet sometimes I can not remember the word/name I am looking for later, e.g. the name Fred Aster when I see a video of him dancing. After about 15 such misses I finally can remember his name. I thoroughly endorse “to do” lists but often forget to use them
    The new book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, about changing habits looks promising if I re-read it 3-5 times.

  2. Jan Polissar
    | Reply

    I am a retired psychiatrist and was not diagnosed with ADD before age 75 when I attended a seminar at an American Psychiatric Association meeting. Suddenly my eyes opened: “My God! This is me !!!” Much more needs to be done to educate grade school teachers and young parents about this illness. It is my understanding that its prevalence is 5-10% in both males and females but females are less likely to be diagnosed. Although there are many self help and parent help books on the market I have not yet found anything that is of great help in better functioning. The techniques always interest me when I read them but then I usually forget to use the idea.
    As best I can tell, in my type of ADD (probably there are several types) there is a defect in short term, but not permanent memory. [It is strange.I never got past the 6th grade in spelling but still can spot misspellings in printed text. Thank goodness for Spell-Check.] Yet sometimes I can not remember the word/name I am looking for later, e.g. the name Fred Aster when I see a video of him dancing. After about 15 such misses I finally can remember his name. I thoroughly endorse “to do” lists but often forget to use them
    The new book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, about changing habits looks promising if I re-read it 3-5 times.

    • Heather Newsome
      | Reply

      Hi Dr. Polssar
      I just wanted to ask if you have given ADHD much though, as a psychiatrist were you not trained to diagnose ADHD? you have done very well with learning and having a good career, I was diagnosed at age 55 my ADHD is so debilitating I just want to help all the others who I know are suffering, all those whose limitations make holding down a job impossible, struggling to comply with the benefit rules being dished out sanction after sanction I know they are undiagnosed ADHD and they are being punished. A high percentage of adopted children are ADHD I know their mothers are ADHD too why is no one assessing and helping them? I held on to my kids by the skin of my teeth! both are diagnosed through school as dyslexic, the school later asked to test my son for ADHD he was nearly 8, I knew he wasn’t ADHD he was just a lively kid like his sister, and like I’d been at that age, the school psychologist tested him not to be ADHD that was 20 years ago but now since my own diagnosis in 2018 I know he is ADHD and I’v watched his struggles, so is my daughter as were my parents my grandparents on my father’s side, my brother his wife one of my nephews, aunts, uncles as well as many of my friends I see too many suffering and struggling with debilitating ADHD. sorry I’m not sure why I felt the need to contact you I was fascinated with you being so clever and getting to 75 ADHD free Lol, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at age 50, I knew i wasn’t depressed but my doctor had mentioned the menopause on googling its effects I discovered “ADHD mimics the menopause” hence my diagnosis after 5 years on the waiting list, I had no idea my messed up struggle of a life was ADHD I just thought I was Stupid.. I wish you well , kind regards heather

  3. cristina graveran
    | Reply

    Hello. Can you explain what are some of the most common behaviors on children and you g adults with ADHD please? Thank you

  4. Suzanne Parenteau
    | Reply

    I’m interested in the often female version of ADD, the inattentive, but not usually hyperactive kind. It is not often diagnosed in females but it is the kind of females often get.
    There are many gifts associated with this spectrum of brain style inventiveness, empathy, and artistic creativity.

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