Just Diagnosed: ADHD Later in Life

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on October 10, 2016
4 min read

Right around the time that Paul Hood, a massage therapist in Seattle, turned 50, he started to hear more and more about ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). As he learned about its symptoms, everything began to click. They sounded an awful lot like his own behavior.

As a child, Hood's teachers often asked him to focus and told him not to blurt things out. As an adult, he'd misplace things, miss deadlines, and arrive late to appointments.

"I lost many jobs over being late," he says. Before he got help, his stress level was high and his self-confidence was low.

Does this sound like you? If so, you could be like many adults who have ADHD and don't get a diagnosis until later in life

It can be a huge relief to find out there's a reason for your behavior, says Keith Kosierowski, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach in Scituate, MA. You can turn things around with treatment -- usually a combo of medicine and strategies to manage your day-to-day life.

There's no single test for ADHD. Your doctor will ask you about your behavior. ADHD's typical symptoms are trouble paying attention, restlessness, and being impulsive.

What does that mean for your behavior? Some things you may notice are that you:

  • Bounce from job to job
  • Find it hard to finish daily tasks like house chores or paying bills
  • Forget things you need to do
  • Get upset easily
  • Perform unevenly on your job
  • Have relationship problems
  • Get stressed about not meeting responsibilities
  • Often feel frustrated or guilty

It's sometimes hard for doctors to diagnose ADHD when you're an older adult, because the symptoms may be similar to other conditions related to aging, like early Alzheimer's disease. A key difference is that ADHD probably dates back to your childhood.

If you have ADHD, a team of professionals has your back. A neurologist or psychiatrist will monitor your health and prescribe medication. A therapist or life coach can help you make positive changes in your day-to-day life.

Choose a doctor who has experience treating older adults with ADHD, says David W. Goodman, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As you get older, problems like stroke, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are more common. Someone who works with people over 50 will keep an eye on possible problems and figure out which disease causes your symptoms. They'll create a treatment plan that's tailored to your needs.

Your doctor may give you medicine to help you focus and concentrate better, such as:

You may be surprised how well and quickly medication works.

"People will notice the benefit the day they take it," Goodman says. "The effect usually kicks in in an hour." It's like having blurred vision and then putting on glasses, he says.

But finding the right medication and dosage isn't always straightforward. It's more complicated if you take other drugs for conditions like high blood pressure or cholesterol. And there aren't many studies on ADHD medication for people over 50, so doctors use caution.

"Typically, we start at the lower end of doses and then move up," Goodman says. Your doctor will check to make sure your ADHD medicine doesn't interfere with other medications you take. They'll also watch for changes in your blood pressure and pulse, and make sure you don't get a bad reaction.

Medicine is just part of your strategy for treating ADHD, Goodman says. You'll get ideas from your doctor on how to manage your day-to-day life, develop new habits, and learn how to get organized.

A therapist or coach can help. "You may use things like alarms, a daily planner, list making," he says. Your smartphone can be a handy tool to stay organized and give you reminders.

A therapist can also help you identify and work on the areas in your life that need attention. Maybe it's holding a steady job, smoothing out financial challenges, or working on your relationships.

Goodman's team often helps family members get on the same page. They explain ADHD to your relatives and come up with ideas to help everyone work together.

Hood, who's now 58, says the right medication helped him settle down and focus better. But making changes at work made an even bigger impact. He left behind a job in a fast-paced call center and became a part-time massage therapist. Now he spends his days in a more relaxed environment with fewer distractions and an overall sense of calm.