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.

  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.

  5. Pam Knapp
    | Reply

    My daughter has ADHD, diagnosed and treated at the age of 10 and with a lot of help from us her parents as coaches, she was able to manage school, middle and high school and even was on the honor roll at times, taking honors classes, graduating in 2014. It was not without struggle though. She rejected our coaching after graduation and to her the age 18 meant I can do whatever I want whenever I want. She immediately flunked out of college and made other choices that broke our hearts including going through multiple boyfriends, moving out before she was ready and rejecting anything and everything from us, her parents including the morals we taught her, her faith and even loyalty to us. She now has a one year old who was diagnosed failure to thrive and is living with her boyfriend. She did not take the prenatal vitamins and was not willing to listen to advise about limiting for example drinking multiple strong coffees daily while pregnant. She had gained a lot of weight before pregnancy and while she had always been a good and healthy eater with us, she engaged in unhealthy eating habits once she moved away. In addition, our daughter is adopted and many of her traits are clearly biological. We also think it is possible she has a character disorder due to her lack of empathy and her profound selfishness. She still does not take care of her own needs such as dentist appointments, etc. as she should. Organization and responding to responsibilities such as paying bills, doing laundry, keeping organized is a struggle. She has poor credit as a result of not feeling the need/obligation to pay bills. She has always taken her jobs seriously and goes to work on time and regularly but has placed herself in difficult positions at times. She has had multiple jobs which this day in time is not uncommon, but has not really taken the time to use her gifts and to nurture these into a competitive type job requiring skill development of which she is VERY capable. She was never willing to seriously discuss her gifts and how they could be used for a career or to guide education. She is obese and was at one point an award winning runner for her high school, actually winning MVP award as a middle school student. She has always been a challenge but has wonderful characteristics as well, of course. She is a great writer and shows talent in use of color and is creative. She has never learned to really put herself out for anything, even the running for which she has natural ability. She also shows musical ability in piano and played flute for the band in high school. She does not take interest in either currently. She actually shows ability across the board but leaves it untapped. We worry about our grandchild and quite honestly we and the other grandparents have her most of the time. She does not engage in drugs and does drink socially at times. She is not an alcoholic. We take one day at a time and pray a lot. We do not know where we are headed and try not to think too far beyond doing what we can do each day. We feel she rejects us because we challenge her.

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