If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), forgetfulness is probably something you’ve dealt with your whole life. But maybe your memory problems are starting to feel different. You’re forgetting things more often. You’re losing the thread of conversations or grasping for the right word.
There are a lot of reasons for memory loss. Some of them are serious, some are easy to treat. Here are some ways to tell whether what you’re experiencing is ADHD, or something else.
ADHD and Memory
When you have ADHD, memory problems tend to show up in ways like missing appointments, or forgetting where you put your phone or keys. ADHD affects two different kinds of memory:
Working memory. This is the part of your memory that allows you to turn information you learn into action, for example: remembering instructions long enough to finish a task. Studies show working memory is less effective in children and adults who have ADHD than in those who don’t.
Long-term memory. People with ADHD often don’t do well on tests of long-term memory. But scientists believe that has to do with how they process information. When you have ADHD, distractions may prevent you from taking in information, or your brain may store it in a disorganized way. Memories aren’t lost, they aren’t made in the first place.
What Causes Memory Loss?
If you’re noticing memory problems, your fears may go straight to dementia. But many other things – including normal aging – can cause memory loss. Other causes can include:
- Mental health issues, including stress, trauma, and depression
- Lack of sleep or sleep apnea
- Not enough of certain vitamins, particularly B1 and B12
- Alcohol and drug use
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications, including:
- Underactive or overactive thyroid
If you can find out and treat the underlying cause, your memory may go back to normal.
More serious conditions can cause memory loss, too, including:
- Brain injury from an accident, infection, stroke, or tumor
- Illnesses that involve the brain, including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, and HIV
If you have any of these conditions, talk to your doctor about your memory problems.
How Can You Tell if It’s ADHD or Something Else?
Memory loss can look and feel the same whether it’s a symptom of ADHD or something else. But there are some clues that can help you and your doctor figure out what’s causing it.
When did the problem start?ADHD symptoms start in childhood. If your memory loss is a new problem, it could have a different cause. Most people lose some amount of brain function as a natural part of aging, starting in your 30s and 40s. Your brain’s function shrinks even more by age 60. Your brain goes through physical changes, and brain cells have a harder time communicating. You may learn new information more slowly and have trouble with multitasking.
Dementia usually starts to appear after age 65. Symptoms tend to start slowly and gradually get worse until you’re no longer able to manage your daily life.
Has something changed? ADHD symptoms don’t get worse over time, but they can become more noticeable under certain circumstances. If you’ve just retired, losing the structure of the workday can cause old problems to crop up again, like managing your time and focusing on a task long enough to finish it. The hormone changes of menopause can highlight ADHD symptoms.
Have you recently been through a stressful situation or traumatic event? Did you hit your head in a fall? Did you start a new medication? Identifying changes in your life may point you to the reason for your memory loss.
Do you have other symptoms? If your memory loss has a physical cause, you’re likely to have other issues, too. Do you have headaches? Blurred vision? Muscle weakness or paralysis? Those could mean a problem with your brain, like an injury, blood clot, or tumor. See your doctor or get emergency care, especially if these symptoms come on suddenly.
Thyroid problems can cause low energy and weight gain. A B12 deficiency can cause balance problems.
What kind of things do you forget? With ADHD, you may not remember where your car keys are because you were distracted when you put them down. But with dementia, you may be driving somewhere you’ve been a hundred times, and suddenly get lost.
In the early stages of dementia, your working memory may be fine, but you don’t remember recent events, like a conversation you had earlier in the day.
Normal aging can make it harder for you to learn new things, so you may not recall the name of someone you just met.
ADHD and Dementia
More and more often, older people are going to the doctor because they think they’re developing dementia, only to find out they have ADHD. The learning disorder is believed to be underdiagnosed in adults. The standards used to identify ADHD in kids don’t apply as well to older people. And over time, some people get very good at making up for their processing problems.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the earliest stage of dementia. It shares many symptoms with ADHD, but there are some important differences.
People with ADHD and people with MCI may both have:
- Problems with so-called executive functions, like paying attention and processing information
- Trouble with impulse control
- Sleep problems
But the conditions are also different in many ways:
- Symptoms of ADHD begin in childhood. MCI starts when you’re older.
- Symptoms of ADHD generally stay the same or become less noticeable in adulthood. MCI gets worse over time.
- People with ADHD are usually fully aware of their memory problems and can describe their symptoms and notice changes. With dementia, it’s more likely to be a caregiver who first spots the problem.
- Medications that can improve the brain function of people with MCI don’t work on ADHD. And the stimulants that help with ADHD have no effect on dementia.
There’s some evidence that people with ADHD may be more likely to develop dementia as they age, particularly the disease called Lewy body dementia. People with both disorders share some of the same brain chemistry differences. And some behaviors that are common in people with ADHD, like smoking and drinking too much alcohol, are known to put you at risk for cognitive decline.
But the jury is still out on whether people with ADHD actually get dementia any more often than people without ADHD.
When to See Your Doctor
Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your memory loss, especially if it’s gone on for some time or if it’s affecting your daily life.
They can do several kinds of tests to try to get to the bottom of it. You may get:
- Mental status tests, where you’re asked to do things like repeat a list of words, name objects, follow multistep commands and answer questions about the past
- Neurological tests
- Imaging tests like an MRI
- Blood or urine tests
Many causes of memory loss are temporary and treatable. If it turns out your memory issues are a symptom of your ADHD, there are still things you can do. Your doctor may adjust your medication or try a different one. Or you may try behavioral therapy or counseling.